The Contenders

Release date: Nov. 28 Distributor: Fox Searchlight

As early as Sundance, critics were whispering Oscar in connection with Laura Linney’s, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s and Philip Bosco’s performances in this emotional drama about two middle-aged siblings forced to drop everything in their already stressful lives to tend to their widowed father. And the Oscar heat’s still on.

In her first film since “The Slums of Beverly Hills,” writer-director Tamara Jenkins turns to a more personal subject, inspired by firsthand observations of strangers at a local nursing home and her own dementia-addled father. But Jenkins’ gift for droll everyday insights remains, providing moments of humor in an otherwise devastating situation.

Linney and Hoffman are adept at playing such flawed individuals as these, ordinary people who aspire not to heroism but a respectable form of getting by. The duo may not look the part of brother and sister, but their chemistry bridges the difference: Linney fusses over her brother’s sloppy lifestyle and appearance, while Hoffman’s character knows just the buttons to push to exploit her insecurities.

In the siblings’ tough decisions about how to handle their belligerent old father (Bosco), Jenkins confronts issues of responsibility and guilt more relevant now than ever as Americans cope with the challenge of a graying older generation. Jenkins’ intimate directorial style may go overlooked, but there’s no denying the power of the performances her script elicits: Linney could nab her third nomination, while hard-working Hoffman’s stiffest competition could be himself (in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”).

See photos, trailer and more on ‘The Savages’

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