Eugene Weekly : Movies : 1.17.08


The Late Ones
Two siblings care for the father who never did

THE SAVAGES: Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins. Cinematography, W. Mott Hupfel III. Music, Stephen Trask. Starring Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Bosco and Peter Friedman. Fox Searchlight, 2007. R. 113 minutes.

Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy (Laura Linney) in The Savages

The Savages, the title of which refers to the characters’ names as well as their predicament, is not, as luck would have it, another bleak film about people behaving badly. It can’t avoid being a grim picture in places, what with its subject matter — the death of a parent by dementia — likely to provoke nearly universal feelings of dread. But writer/director Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills) presents The Savages as a tale of survival, one in which Wendy (Laura Linney) and her brother Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) reshuffle their lives when the father who abandoned them can no longer care for himself. It’s a savage undertaking, to be sure, but Jenkins isn’t interested in death as much as how death reorganizes the lives it doesn’t take.

At the outset, surly Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) is living in a cactus-dense suburb of Sun City, Ariz. After an incident with his feces and a home health care provider, Lenny’s children, both writers on the East Coast, are called upon to provide some kind of elder care. Judging by their reaction — the feces bit is awkward, sure, but he’s living in Arizona? — it’s been a few years without an exchange of Christmas cards. Not that Wendy and Jon are the best of friends, either, as evidenced by Jon’s dismissal of Wendy’s career as “portable” and Wendy’s impulse to lie about grant awards she hasn’t received. (He’s a professor; she’s a temp who raids office supply closets with the skill of a Navy SEAL.) Emotionally, financially and geographically, they are as ill-equipped as possible to support their ailing father, a man who turns out to occupy very little space in The Savages, other than the occasional vicious outburst. But death has a way of forcing people into motion and, what’s more, prompting them to examine everything.

Jon finds a nursing home near his campus in Buffalo. Wendy transports Lenny via an airplane to Jon. Once Lenny’s in place, Wendy decides to stay with Jon for a while, at which point The Savages enters a long middle section that I would call, for lack of a better term, businesslike. There are some light moments, like Wendy sharing a Percocet with Jon that she removed from their father’s dead girlfriend’s medications. But for the most part, the film exudes resentment and bewilderment as the siblings adjust to their new situation. For a comedy, it feels overtaken by bleakness; for a drama, it lacks the gaseous moments to keep things light. But vulnerability returns when Jon injures himself in a tennis match; when he winds up in a medieval-looking brace, the distance between him and Wendy finally closes. Hoffman and Linney, who are at ease throughout the film, are sensational in the film’s final act.

The Savages isn’t a film about redemption by way of last-minute apologies; in The Savages, it’s far too late for that. Instead, it’s about how losing someone makes you appreciate everyone else, including, of all people, yourself. For all that he’s absent, Lenny is a vaguely disturbing presence, rock-like in his silence but always there, aware but inscrutable. All things considered, there’s very little savagery on display. In fact, the title is something of an albatross, creating false expectations of down-and-dirty dealings or, at the very least, persistent neglect. There’s none of either. Perhaps that’s why, in selecting her characters’ given names, Jenkins makes sly reference to the Peter Pan story, Wendy and John being the closest siblings in the Darling family. The Savages is no children’s story, but somehow they all find their way to a better place.

The Savages opens Friday, Jan. 18, at the Bijou.