Review: The Savages
3 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund
There comes a time in every adult’s life when he or she must decide which steps need to be taken in order to care for an elderly parent. It’s the kind of life-invading, time-stopping crossroads that forces many grown children to abandon their everyday; and often it proves itself as transformative a process for them as it does their ailing loved one. The way a brother and a sister cope with that process is what’s chronicled in The Savages, a dark comedy about growing old and growing up from writer/director Tamara Jenkins (The Slums of Beverly Hills).
The film stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as the deeply flawed siblings, Jon and Wendy Savage, who must join forces when their father Leonard (played by Philip Bosco) goes ill with dementia. Jon is a theater professor from Buffalo, N.Y. who has hardened himself into an emotional knot and is writing a book on Bertolt Brecht. Bemused and cynical, he approaches everything with staunch, face-value realism, yet he’s working on a biography no one wants to read and leaving his Polish girlfriend because her Visa has expired. Wendy is an aspiring playwright from the East Village who works as a temp and sleeps with a married man. Plagued by her own delusions of grandeur, she’s stuck in a dead-end job and relationship thanks to the lies she tells herself. The two characters are starkly different in their worldviews yet similar in their unrealized aspirations, and their temperaments collide when they are the only eligible candidates to look after Leonard in his final days.
Hilarity and tears ensue when the family reunites, in the kind of downbeat way that can only come from the utter haphazard-ness that is human life. Watching these two people care for their sick dad is like watching your neighbors do it: it’s boring and ordinary, yet profoundly real and interesting at the same time. When Leonard needs to be strapped onto a modified wheelchair to accompany Wendy onto an airplane, it’s simultaneously funny and palpably humiliating. Meanwhile, Jon and Wendy behave like grown-up brothers and sisters behave: they know each other’s inherent quirks, yet they don’t take into account the personal changes that took place during their time apart. You laugh because you recognize it, and you cry for the very same reason.
The Savages is executive-produced by Alexander Payne, and it has the director’s thrill-of-the-mundane signature scrawled all over it. Such is its strongest and weakest attribute. Like Payne’s Oscar-nominated Sideways from three years back, Jenkins’ film celebrates humanity honestly and forthright. However, it lacks its predecessor’s airy uplift. And like Payne’s About Schmidt from 2002, the look of The Savages is markedly simple and plain, though it doesn’t boast Schmidt’s editorial and compositional panache. From the nursing home that Jon and Wendy eventually check Leonard into to the wintery, semi-suburban streets of Buffalo, it’s so mundane that the addition of a lava lamp in Leonard’s drab room becomes the equivalent of an action sequence. Jenkins’ wholehearted approach of capturing real life is so spot-on, it’s often too real, and as a result, depressing.
Hoffman and Linney bring to their roles the caliber of talent audiences have come to expect from two of the world’s finest character actors, yet neither of them do anything we haven’t seen them do before. Ever the reliable thespians, both give fine, note-perfect performances, just not new ones. Hoffman has mastered the life-battered loser, and has done it better in movies like 25th Hour and this year’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Indie queen Linney is used to playing the unlikable everywoman by now, and did the sibling dichotomy to greater effect in 2000's You Can Count on Me. As Leonard, Bosco gives the freshest turn as a man whose awareness of the limits of his body and mind is painfully still intact. Throughout the film, there are three scenes in which each individual character glances out the window of a car at the passing landscape. When Wendy and Jon do it, both of them, at the time, are drugged on Percocets that Wendy stole from Leonard’s late girlfriend. To escape the stress of their current situation, they both watch the trees and their lives go by. When Leonard does it, he sees the trees too but also a graveyard, and while he may not know what city he’s in, you see in his face the knowledge of what little time he has left.
In a similar vein as Schmidt, this movie illustrates the harsh realities of old age, and in the film’s best line of dialogue, Jon forcefully illuminates for Wendy the sad truths behind the pretty facade of institutions like nursing homes. But also like Schmidt, it shows that those realities can be much harder on the care-giving children than the old people themselves, because it reminds the younger generation of all the things they’ve not yet accomplished in their own lives. Jon and Wendy inevitably find new leases on their latent goals by film’s end, but the road to get there is so gravely unremarkable that it feels like a cheap consolation prize. Mirroring its characters and life itself, The Savages is raw, honest and spontaneous, but flawed nonetheless.