The Savages (2007) dir. Tamara Jenkins
Starring: Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman
It’s not Pacino/De Niro, but a Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman pairing is enough to give “The Savages” a good look. The subject matter – two siblings who come together to attend to and give care to their dementia-stricken father – is depressing stuff. Add in that their characters are struggling writers with failed careers living equally depressive lifestyles, it doesn’t make for an appealing logline. But there is joy in watching these two fine actors compete with each other on screen as their characters do in the film. These lives and this film are worthy of a visit.
Laura Linney plays Wendy Savage, a struggling playwright who writes her grant applications while temping in various NYC offices. Philip Seymour plays Jon, her older brother, a specialized professor in Brechtian theatre. He lives in Buffalo because that’s the only place where he can be employed. When the remarried wife of their father Lenny dies, the siblings are forced to travel to his sterile seniors community in Arizona and bring him home.
As Wendy and Jon deal with the difficulties of their father’s mental deterioration they come to grips with their own place in the world. Wendy’s reconciles her insecurities with her career, her age and her affair with a married man, and Jon tries desperately hard to distance himself from his emotional pain of losing his father.
As you can gather by my synopsis above it's deep and heavy material. Each character has much weight and self-conscious emotional baggage to carry around with them. Writer/director Tamara Jenkins who seems to be writing from a familiar place shows this in a great scene in the car towards the end of the film. Jon and Wendy engage in a heated argument about career envy while their near-comatose father stares straight ahead in silence. A close up of actor Philip Bosco tells us several things – that perhaps he is in the most joyous place of the three, or that he has come to realize he’s the cause of their pathetic bickering. Either way Jenkins tells us a lot with just a close up.
“The Savages” will likely be compared to “Away From Her” which tells the story of an elderly man who puts his wife into a home while she deteriorates from Alzheimers. Both films have moments of sheer sadness. The most uncomfortable for Lenny and Wendy is when she’s on the plane back home and Lenny’s pants fall down on the way to the restroom. The embarrassment made me want to turn away from the screen in shame. “Away From Her” gives us these moments of despair but Sarah Polley allows Julie Christie’s character to retain her dignity. It’s a directorial choice made more uplifting and satisfying in “Away From Her”.
The film breathes life when Linney and Hoffman are screen, and when together it’s magic. We are privileged to watch these two actors at the height of their artistic abilities on screen together. No matter how depressing the material these two actors are highly watchable.
Some may find Jenkins’ depiction of palative care more genuine than Polley’s more poetic and introspective tone. For me, I’d rather spend two hours celebrating life than examining its stool. To each his own. Enjoy.