Sunday, July 13, 2008

Movie Review: "The Savages"

Starring Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Bosco, Peter Friedman, Cara Seymour
Directed by Tamara Jenkins

Official Web site

After a standout debut in 1998 with the darkly humorous “Slums of Beverly Hills,” writer-director Tamara Jenkins seemingly disappeared from the Hollywood scene, only to reemerge late last year with the release of “The Savages.” It’s a bit of a shame to have to wait nine years for something this good, but better late than never.

“The Savages” pairs Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, two of their generation’s finest actors, as unhappy siblings forced to deal with the declining health of their father, Lenny (Philip Bosco). Wendy and Jon Savage both live in New York, far from their father, who lives in Arizona. And with the occasional hints of their crummy childhoods growing up with the short-tempered and foul-mouthed Lenny, their distance from him seems intentional.

But once Lenny starts acting out (in a way I won’t describe here) due to the onset of dementia and his live-in girlfriend passes away, Wendy and Jon are forced to reestablish connections with their father and bring him back to New York. It’s there they look to find a new home for him in an assisted living facility – a pursuit made particularly more difficult for Jon, who can barely hide his dislike for his father.

Aside from their problems with Lenny, Wendy and Jon are hardly happy, well adjusted people themselves. Wendy’s in the midst of an affair with a married man, with no hopes of it ever turning into something more, while Jon is unwilling to marry a longtime Polish girlfriend, even though her deportation to Poland is pending. He even openly weeps about his situation on occasion, yet seems emotionally incapable of dealing with marriage.

While the above description might make it sound like “The Savages” is one seriously downbeat movie, it’s to Jenkins’ credit that there’s plenty of dark humor to be found here too. As she did with “Slums of Beverly Hills,” Jenkins shows the ability to illicit laughter from less than humorous circumstances. Some of the laughs come from the frequent bickering between Wendy and Jon, who pick apart each other’s lives. But despite their arguments, it’s apparent that the two genuinely seem to care for one another. Dealing with an end of life issue with their father forces them to look closer at the direction of their own lives.

Hoffman and Linney (in an Oscar-nominated performance) are both excellent and have a chemistry that makes them very believable as brother and sister. Bosco also has some good moments as the irascible father who’s struggling to cope with the unwanted changes in his life.

The movie, while a fictional tale, has a definite air of reality to it. It’s filled with scenes that feel genuine, sometimes uncomfortably so. Case in point is a well written scene outside a picturesque nursing home that unleashes some brutal truths that are hardly comfortable to talk about. But it’s those kind of perceptive observations that helps “The Savages” extend beyond what could have been, in lesser hands, a boring and predictable study of unlikeable characters. The fact that you end up caring about these people at all is a testament to the care invested by Jenkins and the actors. That said, spending time with the Savages makes me a little more thankful for the family I have.

Grade: A-
(Rated R for some sexuality and language.)

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