Thursday, December 27, 2007
Julie Christie gave one of the year’s most graceful film performances in Away From Her, playing a woman quietly surrendering to Alzheimer’s at a comfortable nursing home in a bucolic setting. In the first scene of The Savages, writer-director Tamara Jenkins quickly establishes that we’re not in Canada anymore. Her bleakly hilarious family satire opens in Sun City, where Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) is fighting about his excrement with a health-care aide. The Arizona seniors’ mecca is just the foyer to the abyss: Buffalo. That’s where Lenny, who’s showing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, will be sent after he’s evicted by the children of his paramour, who drops dead at a nail salon.
Lenny is not alone in the world, but his children wish he were. Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy (Laura Linney) haven’t been close to their dad, and the effect of that strained relationship is reflected in their distance from everyone else: A college professor specializing Brecht, Jon won’t marry his girlfriend, although that refusal means she’ll have to return to Krakow.
A self-styled “subversive” playwright who pays the rent as an office temp, Wendy is conducting a weary affair with a married neighbor, despite having promised everyone – including herself – that she’ll end it. Now these overgrown adolescents will have to be adults, even though Jon is a petulant small-time bully in a neck brace and Wendy a chronic fibber with permed ringlets that went out of fashion when she was in junior-high.
“We are horrible people,” Wendy exclaims after she and Jon check their father into a “rehabilitation center” that can’t and won’t rehabilitate him. They aren’t, of course. They’re normal people, which is to say they’re distracted, bewildered, and sometimes self-serving. A believer in self-improvement and pills, Wendy gives her father a small statue of Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu remover of obstacles, and ginkgo bilboa “to boost brain function.” Movie night at the nursing home proves awkward when Lenny chooses The Jazz Singer, which reminds him of his Jewish Lower East Side childhood, but offends the African-American staffers. Eventually, death is inevitable, but The Savages remembers it’s a comedy, and ends with a set of modest but touching second chances: one offered to Jon, and the other offered by Wendy.
Jenkins’s masterly film is not just another indie trifle that masks cheap sentiment with hip quips. Beautifully performed and emotionally resonant, the movie uses laughs to reveal depths of character, not to camouflage shallowness. Its humor is never facile, and is thoroughly interwoven with other feelings.
When Jon gets to see Wendy’s new play, she keeps asking if it’s self-involved. It is, and so is The Savages, but that’s not a complaint. Like Jenkins’s only other feature, 1998’s The Slums of Beverly Hills, this movie springs from the director’s own life. Yet that inspiration has yielded not narcissism but people who are believably specific, thrust into a situation that’s nearly universal. Too smart, witty, and skeptical to spin Lenny’s decline into a typical disease drama, Jenkins straddles the boundary between tragedy and farce, never losing her balance or compassion.
THE SAVAGES ( 3 ½ ) Directed by Tamara Jenkins • Starring Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Philip Bosco • R, 113 min • At the Osio Cinemas.