Written and Directed by Tamara Jenkins
Ever since her charming feature Slums of Beverly Hills, filmmaker Tamara Jenkins has been MIA in movie theaters. Luckily, her return to filmmaking is with a film with such a great amount of heart, that it surpasses any of her previous work. Jenkins' The Savages is a film about familial responsibility. Though the dramatic comedy about family disorder is as common today as the brainless action film, this film is a one of a kind in the genre, because it focuses on the later result of that dysfunction.
The story is about Wendy Savage (Laura Linney), a woman in her mid-thirties with a desk job, and high ambitions to have her play financed--a play based on the irresponsibility of her parents in her childhood. She is also involved in a deep affair with a married 52-year-old man named Larry (Peter Friedman) who finds the time to indulge in sexual inhibitions with her in between walking his dog. When she receives a disturbing phone call about the health of her father, she is compelled to call her older brother John (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).
John is in the middle of dealing with his own issues. He's a theater professor who's struggling to write a book on Bertolt Brecht, and refuses to marry his Polish girlfriend when her visa has expired, and she will be deported. When Wendy calls him, she informs him that their father Lenny (Phillip Bosco) is being thrown out on the street when his girlfriend dies, and he's unable to legally stay in her home. To top it off, Lenny is suffering from Parkinson's Disease which has caused him to have Dementia.
Lenny's condition has gone far beyond anything they can take on themselves, and they put him in a nursing home in Buffalo. In the meantime, John and Wendy live together in John's house as they try to come to grips with their own lives, and caring for a father who never thought much of caring for them when they were children.
It is mentioned quite a few times throughout the film that Lenny was nearly nonexistent in Wendy and John's childhood, and though its obvious that they have both turned out well despite it, the effects of the abandonment has effected them deeply in their personal relationships and their overall self-confidence. Despite it all, though, they work increasingly hard to make Lenny comfortable, even if they are never able to overcome the guilt of putting him in a nursing home smelling of death.
The film is a breakthrough in the career of Tamara Jenkins. The script is equipped with all the sparkling charm usual to her earlier work, but this film is a lot more mature and grizzled (like Hoffman's beard). There are wonderful moments and superb pieces of dialogue, such as scenes where the two siblings discuss their own careers and futures as writers. The combination of being proud for a loved one and the subtle sibling competition is hard to show on screen. This film manages to do it with a couple lines and stares.
Of coarse, the film would be close to nothing without the work of it's great cast. Linney and Hoffman may be the two most dependable actors, in their respective genders, in film today. Hoffman, coming off a monster year where he also starred in Before The Devil Knows You're Dead and Charlie Wilson's War probably does his best work of this year in this small film, where he displays an emotionally confused 42-year-old with the self-esteem of a 12-year-old. Philip Bosco, known mostly for his work on the stage is transcendent as Lenny Savage, a man as helpless in old age and illness as he was neglectful as a father.
Of coarse, most of the emotional load of the film falls on Linney. Her ability to make Wendy likable and sweet despite being narcissistic and childish is what truly drives the film. Linney creates no pity parties for her character, but she is able to discover her own self-loathing. Without even realizing it, she becomes the backbone of an ever-decreasing family. She makes mistakes sexually and lies to get grant money from FEMA, but she is not all that much more horrible than anybody else.
The film succeeds as an offbeat comedy, even though the laughs come few and far between. Luckily, the audience doesn't get it's gut-check off of side-splitting laughs, but off of watching two people who realize the moment where they have to grow up and start taking care of their family. This is a hard task for two people who have no role model for a responsible family members. There's no need to laugh, the audience will be satisfied with their never-ending smile.