The Savages

The dynamics between two siblings forced together to care for their demented old father are observed wisely and well, and with more than a little humor, in "The Savages."

The dynamics between two siblings forced together to care for their demented old father are observed wisely and well, and with more than a little humor, in “The Savages.” After far too long an absence since her first feature, “The Slums of Beverly Hills,” Tamara Jenkins excels more at maximizing individual moments here than at developing a meaty storyline. But a great many of the moments are choice, and with superb performances by Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman front and center, Fox Searchlight could muster a respectable turnout for a subject not exactly designed to make auds want to drop everything and rush to the cinema. Release date has not yet been set.

Given the numerous scenes rooted in the infirmities of elders at nursing homes and the difficulty of caring for them, there is no doubt many potential viewers will find the material depressing and eminently avoidable as entertainment. Indeed, dementia seems to be the disease of the year at Sundance, as several films focus on older folks facing senility, no doubt a result of the real-life preoccupations of numerous middle-aged writers and directors.

All the same, Jenkins brings a rigor, intelligence and eye for the slightly absurd to the proceedings that is instantly disarming and serves notice that her approach will be far from grim or cloying. Indeed, the ever-so-slightly stylized opening emphasizes the humor inherent in the topography and oldster lifestyle in Sun City, Arizona,

Residing there is crotchety Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco), who signals he’s going over the deep end when he begins writing in feces on the walls of the home he shares with lady friend Doris. When Leonard’s two 40ish children, Jon (Hoffman) and Wendy (Linney), rush out from Buffalo and Manhattan, respectively, to tend to the situation, Doris promptly drops dead, leaving the old man in his kids’ hands.

In concise, deftly handled scenes, Jenkins and her excellent actors convey reams of information, both explicitly and in subtext, about the characters.

Wendy is the easier to read, in that she wears her insecurities and dissatisfactions on her sleeve. Her day job pays the bills, but she’s still trying to make it as a playwright, and her lack of success is embarrassing in that her intensely intellectual brother is a professor of theater and the author of numerous books, including one in progress on Brecht. Unmarried, she is object of the ardent attentions of perennially horny married neighbor Larry (Peter Friedman), but the affair merely underlines her desperation.

By contrast, the disheveled Jon is well practiced at concealing his emotions, and one of the highlights of Hoffman’s performance is how everything about his body language reveals Jon’s desire to avoid intimacy with his sister. At first, Jon seems abrupt and too quick in how he deals with delicate matters, and he has other issues weighing heavily upon him, notably his book deadline and the imminent departure of his Polish girlfriend, whose visa is expiring. But despite not making a show of grief or indulging Wendy’s notions of how one might ideally behave, Jon without great fuss gets done what needs to be done.

That includes finding a nursing home back in Buffalo where Leonard can see out his days near the kids. Although Lenny settles in without undue fuss, Wendy can’t abide the place, and considerable humor spins off her search for a better one.

Pic’s midsection possesses little forward momentum but is flecked with mixed-mood scenes that adroitly infuse the drama with the unexpected stuff life throws at you. Among them are the long-avoided conversation with Dad about what to do “when something happens,” a talk with his sister Jon simply can’t avoid because he’s immobilized by a chin sling attached to a door, a wonderful interlude in which Lenny shows “The Jazz Singer” on movie night because it reminds him of his childhood neighborhood but that becomes embarrassing to black and white viewers alike when Al Jolson slaps on blackface, and a couple of intimate chats Wendy has with a friendly Nigerian worker (Gbenga Akinnagbe) at the nursing home, who imparts an interesting tidbit on how the staff know who will die soon.

Perhaps best of all are the quiet, private moments, as when Wendy, lying awake at night, overhears her normally rational brother crying while on the phone to his Polish paramour, or the care with which Jon carefully redistributes the mess in his home to accommodate Wendy when she comes to stay, in a way that suggests he really does know where everything is.

Script adroitly catches how two drama-steeped siblings might speak to one another–facing the Arizona trip, Jon reassures his sister, “We are not in a Sam Shepard play.”

Both actors are completely credible as the sorts of writers they are. Each perf is the flip side of the other: Hoffman’s professor moves from seeming to be at the end of his rope to having more control and competence than expected, while Linney’s still-aspiring writer must come to grips with her across-the-boards unrealized potential. It’s a wonderful match-up of performances.

Supporting turns also provide ample pleasure, notably those of Bosco as the father and Akinnagbe as the amiable care-giver.

After the bold, parched vistas of the Arizona opening, pic is enshrouded in a dismal Buffalo winter, which provides a measure of humor in itself. Musical choices and tech contributions are discreetly polished.

The Savages

  • Production: A Fox Searchlight release presented in association with Lone Star Film Group of a This is that production in association with Ad Hominem Enterprises and Cooper's Town Prods. Pro-duced by Ted Hope, Anne Carey, Erica Westheimer. Executive producers, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor, Jim Burke, Anthony Bregman, Fred Westheimer. Directed, written by Tamara Jenkins.
  • Crew: Camera (Technicolor, HD), Mott Hupfel; editor, Brian A. Kates; music, Stephen Trask; production designer, Jane Ann Stewart; costume designer, David Robinson; sound (Dolby/DTS/SDDS), Matthew Price; supervising sound editor, Ben Cheah; assistant director, Chip Signore; casting, Jeanne McCarthy. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 19, 2007. Running time: 113 MIN.
  • With: Wendy Savage - Laura Linney Jon Savage - Philip Seymour Hoffman Lenny Savage - Philip Bosco Larry - Peter Friedman Jimmy - Gbenga Akinnagbe