The most straightforward and popular function of cinema in modern life is as a palliative agent of easily digested comfort. From early matinees to midnight screenings, the world’s movie theatres are filled with audiences seeking both a quick tonic against the many ills of their day and a simple escape into fantasy from the complex and unknown forces of reality. Cinema, in both its house and its narrative art form, is often seen as a safe place where the separation between real and imaginary is clearly delineated.
We go to the movies to fall in love, to fly in space, to be scared by monsters, to fight back against those who cause harm, to travel back in time, to indulge in silly and outrageous behavior, to see beautiful people speak incredible words, and to grieve a universal, human sadness that somehow can never be articulated outside the intimacy of sitting alone amongst a quiet audience of strangers in a darkened theatre. We go to the movies most often in the habit and expectation of indulging in the experience of the extraordinary, and not as paying witnesses to the tedium of the mundane that, in our own ordinary lives, seems to be overly abundant. It is, therefore, truly rare when a movie (squarely focused on the commonplace realities of life) manages to remain authentic and thoroughly entertaining.
Writer and director Tamara Jenkins’ latest film, The Savages, is one of those cinematic rarities and is a wonderful example of the old axiom that art is a lie that that tells the truth. For in this film, the constructed and observational simplicity of mirroring reality allows for the exploration and revelation of subtle truths that too often get lost in the daily living of life. The Savages is a brutally honest, darkly humorous, and unflinching examination of life, death, and the responsibilities we hold both to our family and ourselves.
The Savages focuses on the inconvenient and awkward reunion of two middle-aged siblings as they are forced to deal with the declining health of their estranged father, Lenny (Philip Bosco). Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a Drama professor at a university in Buffalo, New York. Trying to finish his long-overdue book (on Bertolt Brecht’s theatre of social unrest), maintaining his teaching schedule, and dealing with the departure of his long-time girlfriend, Jon is the archetypal academic: overworked, underpaid, disheveled, stressed-out, and seemingly always on the edge of falling apart.
Jon’s younger sister, Wendy (Laura Linney), is a struggling New York City playwright who continues to send out applications for prestigious theatre grants (that she quietly knows will never be awarded to her) while tolerating the loneliness and ignominy that come with working temp jobs in the city. The only excitement in her life stems from a dull affair she is carrying on with Larry (Peter Friedman), a married man who lives in her building. Not even an illicit affair seems to shake Wendy’s prevailing sense of languorous malaise and raging boredom. It is clear that Wendy’s passion for this relationship has long since been extinguished as she shows more interest, concern and affection for Peter’s dog than for the man himself.
The death of Lenny’s long-time companion and his deteriorating mental and physical health prompts Jon and Wendy to fly out to Arizona and attend to their long estranged father. The task of caring for him turns out to be more complicated and involved than either was expecting. Jon’s approach to this rather inconvenient familial duty is all business and economic efficiency as he charges through with making arrangements to bring Lenny to Buffalo where he can be placed in a long-term care facility. Wendy is left to deal with the actual logistics and uncomfortable realities of flying a sick, confused, and thoroughly indignant elderly man cross-country.
Upon their safe arrival, Jon immediately shuttles his father to the nursing home that is as depressing and miserable as the coldest, greyest winter’s day Buffalo has ever seen. Despite their father’s past history of abuse and neglect, Wendy is mortified and saddened by the bleak environment in which her father now finds himself. In order to care for her father while trying to obtain residency in a new (i.e., nicer, prettier, and less blatantly depressing) nursing home for him, Wendy temporarily moves in with her brother, Jon.
Jon and Wendy’s relationship is one borne of and forged over the pain and sadness of a broken family. They are close to and love one another deeply, but it is clear that the sudden geographical proximity thrust upon them by their father’s health crisis is the first real test of their sibling bond. Not only are they forced to grow up and be the parent to their dying father, but also both must deal with the personal recognition that they are individual and fully responsible adults.
While the film’s final scenes stumble a bit (perhaps borne of writer/director Jenkins’ immense love and hope for her characters’ futures) the film does not supply easy answers or simple conclusions. Observed with a distant clarity and without judgment The Savages manages to traverse the fine line between drama and comedy with an organic, affecting naturalness that never feels forced or overly scripted. Credit this to a wonderful marriage of smart writing, assured direction, and outstanding acting.
Critical fawning of both Hoffman and Linney has been a well-established practice over the last several years. Some people may tire of such plaudits, but the exceptional talent of these two actors is such that notice must be given and praise awarded for the extraordinary and singularly unique gifts they both bring to the craft of acting. Clearly relishing the opportunity to work alongside one another, both actors are in top form in The Savages, and it is a joy to view their on-screen pairing.
For those who missed the film’s theatrical run, its release on DVD should be a welcome opportunity to meet The Savages. Included in the DVD are the standard basket of extras that include: deleted scenes, bios, trailers, and a behind the scenes special with the filmmakers and cast that is both brief and basic yet, rather, unexpectedly reveals incisive details about the film’s progression from page to screen.
Films about neurotic individuals and their dysfunctional families are so ubiquitous these days that little new territory feels left to explore. The Savages is a good reminder that sometimes the simplest stories about the most ordinary of people can be the most engaging, rewarding and entertaining.