There are so many remarkable things about Tamara Jenkins’ THE SAVAGES that it’s hard to know where to start. The masterful performances are a given by pros Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Jon and Wendy, siblings uncomfortable with the idea of family. There is also a subtly optimistic script about the end of life, and its beginnings, that make both a revelation, and there is direction that is as compassionate as it is unsentimental. Jenkins and company find the truths, and the humor, in the tragedy of a fractured family coming to terms with unwanted responsibilities and the uncomfortable feelings of closeness they engender. It makes for a film that is dark, tart, and oddly joyful.
It opens in the pristine splendor of Sun City, the retirement village in Arizona where the well-to-do spend their final years in peace, contentment, and comfort. It is a brief glimpse of the nirvana shortly to be taken from Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco gloriously cantankerous and befuddled), the long-absent father of Wendy and Jon, who after years of estrangement will shortly be saddled with his care in his declining years. When the woman with whom Lenny has been cohabiting in Sun City dies during a manicure, his dutiful if wary children pack him up and take him back to snowy New York where they can keep an eye on him. Sort of. Lenny, it seems, has a host of problems aside from insolvency ranging from intermittent incontinence to incipient dementia, forcing his children to face the realities of putting him in a nursing home, and, more traumatically, into one that they can afford.
Jon is a theater professor at a mid-range school, working endlessly on a book about Beckett, and Wendy is a temp, scrounging office supplies and postage in her quest to finish her play, in which she explores her conventional paternal abandonment and the slightly more eccentric one perpetrated by her mother. Wendy, though, is still surprised that in her father’s home, there isn’t one picture of her or Jon. It’s a tip-off about how much work she has to do to come to terms with her issues as much as the Oedipal rage angle of Jon’s book is a tip-off about his. Their personal lives aren’t in much better order, with Wendy being the stop-off for her married upstairs neighbor when he walks his dog, and Jon ending his long-term relationship with his Polish girlfriend because her passport has expired and, as he puts it, neither of them is ready for marriage, love notwithstanding.
The disorder of their lives seems to be the only thing these siblings have in common. She frets about making Lenny comfortable with tatchkes he doesn’t want, need, or appreciate. Jon is emotionally detached, during his visits. But as they face the encroaching end of their father’s life, including a painfully awkward talk with him in a coffee shop about end-of-life decisions, they reconnect, at least as family, if not as pals. There is something in the way that Linney delivers Wendy’s line telling Jon that he’s an idiot, and meaning it, that makes it the sort of loving insult that only a sister can deliver. It, like the film as a whole, has a bracing, even refreshing, smack of honesty
Linney with a slight wrinkle of her forehead, a smile that is as insistent as it is forced, and a voice that quavers with fear and grit, is arresting. Her performance is a revelation about the pain of dysfunction and the self-delusion of being over it. She imbues Wendy’s battle with a nursing home resident over a red pillow that her father gave away with the force of an inner struggle suddenly, viscerally externalized. The look on her face as Wendy discovers her father’s secret stash of family memorabilia heartbreakingly raw with the unexpected hope it engenders for a happy ending to an unhappy emotional journey. Hoffman, less showy but no less impressive as the aggressively rumpled, emotionally buttoned-up brother, chisels a manner that only seems mild from Jon’s bitterness and self-loathing.
THE SAVAGES is a most unlikely holiday film. There are no warm fuzzies here, but instead a celebration of finally growing up, of letting go, and of finding peace where before there was only an aching sort of anger.