Director : Tamara Jenkins
Screenplay : Tamara Jenkins
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Laura Linney (Wendy Savage), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Jon Savage), Philip Bosco (Lenny Savage), Peter Friedman (Larry), David Zayas (Eduardo), Gbenga Akinnagbe (Jimmy), Cara Seymour (Kasia), Tonye Patano (Ms. Robinson), Guy Boyd (Bill Lachman), Debra Monk (Nancy Lachman), Rosemary Murphy (Doris Metzger)
Like Tamara Jenkins' first feature, Slums of Beverly Hills (1998), The Savages is a pitch-black comedy about the pitfalls of growing up. Slums was a more conventional maturation comedy in that the protagonist was a 14-year-old girl, but Jenkins brings many of the same insights into The Savages' portrait of middle-aged siblings caught in a case of arrested development fomented by a mother who left early and an unaffectionate father. The fundamental irony of the story is that it is now up to these maladjusted “adults” to care for the aging parent who never really cared for them.
The story opens in the ridiculously picturesque town of Sun City, Arizona, a haven for retirees (Jenkins opens with an almost Lynchian surreal shot of elderly women in electric blue cheerleader outfits dancing in front of a row of cacti). It is here that the aging patriarch Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) has been living with his girlfriend for 20 years. When she drops dead in the middle of a salon appointment, Lenny's two grown children, Wendy (Laura Linney) and Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman), are called in to take care of the old man, who has no money and no place to live. That would be difficult enough if Wendy and Jon had anything even remotely resembling a functional relationship with their father, but they haven't spoken with him in years.
Jon's answer is to take Lenny back to the East Coast, where he lives in Buffalo as a college professor working on a probably unreadable book about Bertolt Brecht and Wendy lives in New York as a temp who dreams of becoming an award-winning playwright, but wastes much of her time sleeping with her married neighbor (Peter Friedman). Their lives are inverse portraits of failure: Wendy struggles to make something of herself and blatantly lies whenever faced with it head-on while Jon, despite having “made it” professionally, is a miserable sad-sack who can't commit to his Polish girlfriend of four years even though she's on the cusp of being deported. Their simultaneous desperation to connect somehow is embodied best by Wendy lying to her lover about having cancer and Jon crying whenever his girlfriend makes him eggs. One sibling overreaches while the other resists fundamental human emotion.
The title of The Savages is a bit too pointed, even though the characters' “savagery” is more muted and repressed than vicious and open. We never get a full sense of just how lousy a father Lenny was except what we read through Jon and Wendy's behaviors, which is a much more intrinsically satisfying emotional hit than seeing it in flashbacks or listening to long-winded monologues. Jenkins, who has once again drawn on her own life, has an innate understanding of the difficulties involved in making choices for someone who once had the responsibility for taking care of you, and the way Wendy festers about every little detail and Jon just wants to wipe his hands of the situation tells us exactly the rut in which each sibling is mired.
As a character piece, The Savages relies on its actors to do the heavy lifting, and Jenkins couldn't have done better than Linney and Seymour Hoffman for her conflicted sister and brother. Linney has played this kind of role before, but she brings an underlying darkness to it that conveys Wendy's inner turmoil even as she tries to make everything seem all right, often by blatantly lying. Seymour Hoffman's Jon is similarly a riff on the sad-sack characters he's played before, but he does it so well it's hard to fault the performance just because it has a certain familiarity (and he should be given extra kudos for what can only be described as the best scene ever played while in traction).
In its twin portaits of child-parent and sibling-sibling relationships, The Savages strikes at a lot of nerves both directly and indirectly. Jenkins is a provocateur to be sure, but she also has a heart, which is why her films don't come across as mean even when dealing comically with issues of death, debilitation, and emotional trauma. Her fundamental love of her broken, immature characters shines through the darkest moments, and even when they're acting at their most childish, their is an inherent sympathy that makes their tentative, often clumsy stabs toward emotional maturity that much more gratifying.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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