The Savages (2007) / Drama-Comedy
Cast: Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Bosco, Peter Friedman, David Zayas, Gbenga Akinnagbe
Director: Tamara Jenkins
Screenplay: Tamara Jenkins
Indie writer-director Tamara Jenkins returns after nearly a decade following her interesting independent semi-autobiographical film, The Slums of Beverly Hills, with another erudite look at the difficulties of life when caring for a family member who is going through the process of dying. The Savages treads the line between dark comedy and melancholy drama in a way where both facets contribute to making this a funny, poignant, and sad depiction of a dysfunctional family finding that they don't have enough personal connection with each other to know how to deal with the impending loss of an abusive father, who is now suffering from dementia.
Philip Seymour Hoffman (MI3, Capote) and Laura Linney (Man of the Year, The Hottest State) star as 40-ish siblings Jon and Wendy Savage, not the closest of family members, but they reunite in order to tend to their troublesome father's needs. Father Lenny (Bosco, My Best Friend's Wedding) has been diagnosed with dementia, which means he needs special care as he begins to slowly unravel. Both of them travel to Arizona to iron out the wrinkles, but they soon find that they are the only ones who care to take care of him, though neither is in a position for this most unwelcome of life's events. They struggle to get him into a quality care facility, but practically none will accept a man whose sanity is deteriorating to the point of constant unpleasantness.
The subject matter is grim, though not overbearing thanks to Jenkins' witty, offbeat approach. Solid performances by Hoffman and Linney (who would get an Oscar nomination for the role, in addition to Jenkins for her screenplay) keep the characters interesting despite their flawed natures. Philip Bosco's performance might be underrated by most critics, but it is definitely noteworthy, as he seems both helpless and aggressively fearsome, often at the same time. The story sometimes gets jumbled up by spending an inordinate amount of time with Wendy's affair with an older married man (Friedman, Freedomland), as well as her rivalry with her brother to become an accomplished writer, but these deviations prove just as interesting as the story at hand, which might have been too bitter a pill to swallow had it just been about the subject of the elder care system and death.
The Savages is often an uneasy, but rewarding film for mature viewers, especially those who may have undergone similar life detours to care for their own aging parents in their final years. It's not a polished film, and yet, it's the messiness of it that keeps it from being too predictable, and therefore, much more interesting than a pat Hollywood production would lend. The film ultimately switches gears to become about a woman finding her path in life when the baggage that has pulled her down has been alleviated, which isn't as strong as the often scary peek into aging and the care system for older people. The film does end on a positive note, suggesting that we should try to enjoy the time left for those on the decline, rather than find a spot to hole them up and forget them until they expire. The overriding cynicism is not to every taste, but if you can relate to the themes, it's a worthwhile cathartic experience.
©2008 Vince Leo