The Savages

2007-11-28 (Limited release)

From PopMatters’ coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival 2007.

Director Tamara Jenkins, who crafted a similarly off-kilter environment in 1998’s Slums of Beverly Hills, returns in tip-top shape with her newest offering The Savages, a film that shows her in a new light as a reputable auteur.

Opening with a winking shot of old ladies in sparkly blue uniforms doing a synchronized dance, and others doing synchronized swimming in a retirement community, Jenkins, without delay, puts us smack dab in the middle of the bizarre world of senior citizen Lenny Savage (played with astonishing humility by the great Phillip Bosco). Lenny is a dotty old man who is quickly losing it. His elderly, sick girlfriend of 20 years (with whom he shares a home) is hopelessly ill, and Lenny is starting to show signs of a quick descent into dementia.

When his long-time partner dies, the woman’s family contacts Lenny’s estranged children Jon and Wendy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) to come and pick him up before they throw him out. The dead woman’s family no longer wants the responsibilities that come along with taking care of a sick old person. Jon and Wendy don’t particularly want that responsibility either.

Still, the guilt-riddled Wendy and the practical Jon fly in from New York (he from Buffalo and she from NYC) to Arizona to prepare the old patriarch for the rest of his life, to be lived out in a low-income nursing home.

The intricacies of a fractured family’s dynamics play out over the next two hours in a poignant, often hilarious way, as the cast richly explores the mysteries of what binds a family together and how these relationships become strained in situations of extreme duress. In a crisis, these bonds can make or break the strongest families, and one astute thing that Jenkins subversively points out is that something like this can happen to any family. Sometimes the bonds that are necessary to get you through the day just miraculously appear out of nowhere.

Though the Savage kids are both a self-involved (he is a professor of drama while she is a struggling playwright/temp), they begin to rekindle their own long-ignored relationship as they clash over the way their father should be cared for. Wendy wants Lenny to reside in a sunny, tree-lined elderly care facility in the country (that would cost an arm and a leg), the opposite of her brother’s practicality — he thinks that these fancy rest homes are designed to prey upon the guilt of people who think they owe their parents something for past mistakes.

Jenkins and her gifted cast have put together an insular film that subtly examines and questions the state of elder care in the United States and endowed it with larges doses of merciless, incisive wit (if you are easily offended, specifically by sight gags involving racism, I would say steer clear). The film also communicates a sense of hopefulness in the face of adversity and a humanness that anyone who has ever had a sick relative will be able to connect with on a very personal level.

Linney and Hoffman deserve every bit of the critical adoration I expect they will receive and both are expertly suited to play these roles: he is a sad-sack schlub who is just a damaged little boy inside; she is an abrasive, opinionated aimless woman who can’t find her footing in life. Hoffman seems almost born to play a sensitive, grizzled old academic, and Linney shines in yet another delicate balancing act that requires her to hit soaring comedic and neurotic heights, and vanity-free unsympathetic lows. Their professional affinity for one another (and the material, and their jobs) is obvious, and their chemistry is off the chain. Each nuance, each gesture, and each word comes across as totally natural, never contrived. It is two of this generation’s best, handling a tricky subject with poise.

RATING 8 / 10