A story about an old man’s descent into senility shouldn’t be as richly comic as The Savages, 2007’s Oscar-nominated drama co-starring Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Writer/director Tamara Jenkins (1998’s The Slums of Beverly Hills) clearly sees the humor in this tale of siblings reconnecting to care for their aged father. But it’s never played for easy laughs. You’ll have to squint hard to see the humor buried beneath the tragedy.
The Savages opens with an image of tap-dancing grannies parading under an Arizona sun. For some seniors in this sun-bleached oasis, life is good. That used to be true for Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco), an elderly man who lives with his longtime girlfriend in her ranch home. When Lenny starts acting out against her in-home caregiver, the worker dials up Lenny’s daughter for help.
Wendy Savage (Laura Linney in an Oscar-nominated performance) is a wannabe playwright who finds comfort in the arms of a married man (Peter Friedman). After hearing the caregiver’s distress call on her answering machine, she calls her brother Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) for help. “We’re not in a Sam Shepard play,” Jon tells her. “It’s not a crisis. Not yet.” When Lenny’s girlfriend dies, her children decide to kick Lenny out of their mother’s house. Now, it’s a crisis.
Lenny was an abusive, emotionally distant dad, but guilt and a vague sense of responsibility force Wendy and Jon to plan for his next home. They scout nursing homes that might take Lenny in, all the while bickering about such mundane matters as how much Jon’s home looks like the one belonging to the Unabomber.
The siblings are forced to get reacquainted, but this time as adults with deep emotional flaws. He’s a slob with a sweetheart of a girlfriend with whom he can’t commit. She’s a psychological mess, engulfed in a loveless affair that symbolizes her need for affection. Her future rests on winning an arts scholarship to write a semi-autobiographical tell-all that just might exorcise some of her demons. At least she has a plan. Jon isn’t quite sure what lays ahead for him.
Caring for their father becomes a competition of sorts, a chance to out-sympathize the other. But that quickly gives way to a mutual appreciation and an acknowledgement that their father’s health will deteriorate quickly. Linney and Hoffman establish a believable rapport as brother and sister early on, replicating the dynamics of siblings who haven’t laid eyes on one another in years, but still know which buttons to push to get a rise out of one another.
Jenkins crafts their scenes with humor and pathos, never letting herself feeling too sorry for their predicament, but also unwilling to make excuses for them. Her Oscar-nominated screenplay offers pointed moments, like an oblivious manicurist pushing a “sexy” nail color on Lenny’s senile girlfriend. And when Jon and Wendy debate the crisis level of their father’s illness, they fall back on homeland security color codes.
Linney walked away with the Oscar nomination, but Hoffman easily could have picked up his own had voters not been so distracted by his boisterous turn in Charlie Wilson’s War. And Bosco nails Lenny’s aggressive outbursts, but watching his face during quieter sequences is a lesson in lean, efficient acting.
While The Savages excels in its sober brand of storytelling, the film’s subplots are given less attention. Jon’s Polish girlfriend is moving back to her homeland rather than wait around forever for him to propose, but we aren’t told enough about their bond to root for a reconciliation. And Wendy’s flirtation with a health care worker is similarly underheated.
The Savages sounds depressing on paper, but flawless performances and bracing humor enliven its grim subject matter.
The DVD comes with one perfunctory “making of” feature, plus two uncut scenes no one will be clamoring for — a longer version of the tap dance number that opens the film and a senior citizen duet that comes a few sequences later. Surely a re-release will dig deeper into the film vault for more scenes.
Jenkins adds the most information during the “making of” segment, explaining the origins of some peculiar moments in the film as well as a peek into her unofficial story research — the final days of her father and a grandparent. The banter spends more time describing the film you just saw than providing insights into its creation, but Jenkins mostly fills in those gaps. Her tale of how the film landed its musical score — composer Carter Burwell (“Miller’s Crossing”) suggests Stephen Trask for the projects, is the kind of background tale tailor made for DVD extras.