It’s a crime how we treat the elderly in America. Disposable, burdensome, and no longer warranting dignity, we warehouse the old in an odd attempt to master our own fleeting mortality. We create buzzword balms like “assisted living”, “retirement community” and “senior hospice”, all in an attempt to avoid the more scandalous label “nursing home”. Adult children caring for their enfeebled parents have become a post-modern social phenomenon, a glorified gut check for often distant siblings and their inadvertently affected families. In her latest film, writer/director Tamara Jenkins explores the effect that infirmary has on The Savages—a brother and sister whose abusive father is slowly succumbing to dementia. Yet instead of investigating only the comic or dramatic possibilities of the story, the filmmaker falls into some often unnecessary quirk, rendering important themes and issues slightly surreal.
When we first meet the deteriorating Lenny Savage, he is scribbling obscenities in feces on his barely coherent girlfriend’s bathroom walls. When she eventually dies, her family wants nothing to do with the degenerating man. A call to his kids on the East Coast sets a series of events in motion. Wendy is a single NYC writer making ends meet as a temp while hoping to land an artist’s grant. Jon is a professor at a local upstate New York college. Together, the duo travel to Arizona, gather up their failing father, and place him in a local Buffalo care facility. Wendy hates it, seeing it as a less than honorable end for her dying dad. Jon couldn’t care less. He just wants the problem solved. Both are bothered by the notion of caring for a man who abandoned them 20 year before, yet his crimes against the family seem insignificant when compared to his present state. Still, for the Savages, this backhanded reunion is bringing the past into perspective—and they really don’t like what they see.
Walking precariously between real world gravitas and the far too isolated and idiosyncratic, The Savages is a wonderful premise undermined by some unnecessary pretense. It stands as a stoic effort, an excellent attempt at getting to the heart of the whole ‘kids caring for their parents’ problem. But with its lack of focus and frequent flights of unnecessary fancy, director Jenkins constantly corrals her ambitions. We can tell that this story strikes a nerve in the filmmaker. She fills the screen with passion, turning a pair of angst-driven artist types confronting the realities of life and death into a manifesto on humanity. But then the narrative drops in too many literary signatures—the sage Nigerian orderly, the world weary Polish girlfriend—and the film gets sidetracked. Perhaps if Jenkins had figured whose story this really is—Lenny’s, Jon’s, or Wendy’s—we’d feel a deeper emotional connection. But their father’s illness is not the catalyst we anticipate it being. Instead, The Savages marks it as part of a three act arc, and then forgets to properly finish it off.
Lenny’s plight is indeed the most intriguing element here, probably because it’s the least self-centered. Both of his children live lives of proscribed isolation, existing within a wounded world of their own creation. Wendy can’t commit, looking for a “Daddy” to substitute for the clichéd father figure she never had. Yet that only partially explains her on again, off again trysts with in-it-for-the-sex middle aged married Larry. In fact, all throughout the film, she seems more interested in one-upping her professor brother than achieving a happy parental medium. Jon is also insular, but at least he appears functional. Sure, he can’t connect, allowing a three year relationship to fizzle because of an expired visa. Yet he’s not the volatile mess the movie hints at (we hear a great deal of innuendo about the physically abusive childhood he had at the hand of his dad). In many ways, The Savages is all set up. We keep waiting for the catharsis, the moment when the old wounds finally open, seep, and then start to heal. It never comes.
Instead, we keep circling around our characters, convinced they will provide the reveal that the material mandates. From the opening, we know that Lenny has been a distant, inattentive parent, part of a lifelong pattern in the Savage clan. And Phillip Bosco’s amazing performance provides some insight into such a horrifying history. Though his degenerative disease amplifies his anger, this is clearly one bitter, brutal man. His rage mirrors the meekness of his adult children quite well. While it would have been nice to learn of the real life horror show that occurred all those decades ago, Jenkins feels that suggestion speaks louder. It really doesn’t. Since Wendy appears flighty, not clipped, and Jon jaunts around as if this is all a matter of everyday dealings, we never really see the stereotypical signs of a life spent in the presence of a paternalistic ogre. Instead, The Savages wants to broaden the scope. It thinks we’d be more interested in watching Wendy and Jon zone out on stolen Percocet, or moderate the responses of African Americans to Al Jolson’s blackface routine from The Jazz Singer.
Eccentricity can work to lighten a dark and dire narrative, but Jenkins relies a little too openly on the odd juxtaposition to give her film the right authenticity. Jon and Wendy manage to move their father rather easily, and once in the nursing home, he becomes a kind of storytelling stopwatch. Plot points revolve around his increasing illness, and the disposability of his dilemma turns into an anticlimactic epiphany. Most families in the Savages situation have to wait a long, heartwrenching time as their loved one slowly fails and fades away. Here, it’s a Thanksgiving to Christmas cross to bear. In addition, we never really see much interaction between the trio. Jon and Wendy visit their father often, yet we only catch them when Lenny is snoozing or explosive. The siblings never discuss the problem, offering only predetermined responses to keep things settled. The best moment comes when Jon confronts his sister’s senseless desire to move their father to a ‘higher class’ facility. “There’s nothing but death in there” he shrieks, face showing the pain he obviously masks. Everything else, he points out, is just window dressing for the guilt ridden families footing the bill.
Indeed, it’s the performances that save The Savages, giving it far more weight than the script can supply. Phillip Seymour Hoffman gives Jon the requisite quiet side, yet you can feel a real ache within his soul. Though Jenkins tries to thwart his efforts (he has an important moment while strapped into a homemade traction device), he’s the tenderness the rest of the characters lack. Bosco again deserves praise for being both completely fearless and all but archetypal. Who he is as a man is never more important that what he symbolizes as a stigma, but we still find dimension in Lenny. Laura Linney will, perhaps, be the biggest problem for audiences. She’s a totally written wreck, a scattered screenplay invention that feels incredibly phony half the time. Her problems appear menial, a measure of a life lived in the shadow of something devastating. Yet because Jenkins has determined that the facts stay buried in the background, The Savages never opens up. Instead, it uses its earnestness and entertainment value to truck along to a nominal conclusion.
Granted, not every tale centering on the ravages of aging needs to be a grim dramatic tour de force. For ever family facing the prospect of death with clothes renting hysterics, people pass without so much as a considered whimper. Had The Savages shown us Lenny’s limited life before death finally came to call, we might feel shortchanged. We’d wonder about his family, and their apparent lack of caring. Jon’s routine remains relatively unchanged throughout the course of the film, so we gain no additional insight from following his plight. And Wendy—she’s a Woody Allen heroine without the snappy repartee. She’d be a bad story subject if only because she’s too peripheral to all that’s happening. So maybe Tamara Jenkins was right in making her movie a statement about all three. Too bad then that the final assessment is so slight. The material definitely commands something much deeper.