Rated R, 113 min. Directed by Tamara Jenkins. Starring Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Bosco, Peter Friedman, Gbenga Akinnagbe.
Don’t pay any attention to the synopsis of this film. It’ll make it sound like something for nonmasochists to sidestep, and nothing could be further from the truth. Descriptors like “Alzheimer’s,” “dysfunctional siblings,” “nursing homes,” and “Buffalo” would seep into the picture, and they might overshadow other hints of just how smart, funny, thoughtful, and exquisitely realized Jenkins’ movie really is. Nine years after Slums of Beverly Hills (Jenkins’ delightful feature debut), the writer/director’s follow-up happily avoids the dreaded sophomore slump. In fact, The Savages skips a whole grade or two, for it’s more like a senior thesis, a mature assessment of the knot of relationships that we call family. Her movie is a deft blend of realism, almost hyperrealism at times, and playful touches of structural whimsy. It of course helps that The Savages stars Linney, Hoffman, and New York stage vet Bosco – a brilliant ensemble that transfixes your attention whether they're working solo or in concert. Jon (Hoffman) and Wendy (Linney) are the grown and distant children of Lenny Savage (Bosco). (Are there shades here of the elder Darling children, John and Wendy, who flirt with the possibility of not growing up in Peter Pan?) When they are alerted by strangers to the fact that Lenny is showing signs of senile dementia and has been parked in a hospital in the retirement community of Sun City, Ariz., the brother and sister are catapulted into action. Jon is a drama professor in Buffalo who specializes in Brecht and the theatre of social unrest, while Wendy is a would-be playwright who lives in New York and works temp jobs and files continual grant applications. The subtlety of the interplay between siblings is one of the joys of The Savages. Their knowledge of each other locks them in an endless bout of familiar comforts and strategic barbs, reacting to primal triggers of sibling discontent that have otherwise been long ago put to rest, arising spontaneously upon contact, like a rash. Jon is the seemingly more analytic, more restrained one; Wendy is the more emotional of the two, the one who believes the pictures in the nursing-home brochures and literally believes old dogs can learn new tricks. Yet in many ways they resemble their estranged father (just look at their faces as a doctor ticks off the symptoms of Lenny’s dementia, starting with the blank stare). “We are not in a Sam Shepard play,” declares Jon in response to Wendy’s initial hysteria and guilt, yet he also assuages himself with the knowledge that he is doing better by his dad than his dad ever did for his kids. It seems that no matter what we do or don't do, the parent-child relationship is fraught. This conundrum brings up another aspect of The Savages that makes it hard to market broadly: The film is likely to play differently to people of different age groups, maybe even sexes. To what extent one identifies with, recognizes, and fears each of the characters may govern the viewer's disposition toward the subject matter. Younger viewers may have to wait awhile before they're able to locate their inner Savage. Again, this description is starting to sound bleak and belies the film's inherent humor and self-awareness. Lovely visual and musical choices supplement the extraordinary central performances (the only misstep is the phony-looking wig Linney wears). Jenkins' superlative work proves her first film was no fluke; let's hope it doesn't take another nine years to hear from her again.
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