Linny, Hoffman give a Savage view of aging and family

by Glen Baity

Not to sound like a nag, but: You should always welcome the opportunity to sit down in the darkened theater and watch two or three good actors play off one another.

Here I’m thinking about a film like Lost in Translation, or The Station Agent, or the subject of this week’s review, The Savages. You have to be in the right mood, and you have to give yourself over to the fact that you might be watching a movie in which not much is happening. But when you allow those things, the experience can be sublime.

So it is with The Savages, which came out of Sundance last year with a respectable head of steam, if not Juno-caliber buzz. Thanks to a pair of Oscar nominations (a best actress nod for star Laura Linney, and a recognition for writer/director Tamara Jenkins’ original script), it has landed on more screens than it perhaps would have otherwise, one of them being in Greensboro. So during the long, cold march to summertime, take a few hours and watch Linney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman deliver two well-realized performances in a weighty exploration of what it means to be family in the most difficult times.

That should, however, be your cue that The Savages is a bit of a downer. Linney and Hoffman play Wendy and Jon Savage, adult siblings and products of a broken, evidently-miserable childhood. When their aging father’s oncoming dementia takes a turn for the worse, the two decide to fly him from his Arizona retirement community to a nursing home near Jon’s house in Buffalo, NY.

With their father, Lenny (played brilliantly by Philip Bosco) back in their lives for the first time in years, the brother and sister have to weigh their feelings about who he was against the reality of who he is becoming. It’s heavy subject matter of a kind most people would probably prefer to avoid, but The Savages is worth seeing for the acting alone.

That’s because neither Linney nor Hoffman has ever turned in a bad performance, and they’re both perfect – and perfect for each other – in this film, so much so that it’s difficult to believe they’re not actually related. Each conveys a deep, abiding sadness, and though it affects each of them differently, the common root cause is clear. The little details of Jenkins’ screenplay – how Wendy doesn’t think twice about reading Jon’s mail, to name only one – make it easy to believe this pair once shared a home and a lot of personal space. And they’re both kind and cruel to each other in the way that siblings just are, often spooning out multiple doses of each in a single scene.

Though it can be difficult to watch, I also appreciated the realism of the Savages’ nursing home experience. The guilt they feel, despite the fact that their father was a pretty nasty guy, is something most families go through, but it’s not something I’ve seen articulated very well in a lot of movies. Jenkins, to her credit, doesn’t shy away from the tough realities of aging – the loss of dignity and personal agency, the jarring hugeness of a pair of adult diapers, the outrage at having a parent’s personal item go missing from their room. The result is a film that rings true most of the time, though it sometimes gets distracted by more pedestrian subplots involving the Savages’ sad love lives.

I’d also be remiss if I confined my praise of Bosco to a parenthesis. The longtime supporting actor steps up in a big role here, and turns in a performance worthy of the material. Anyone who has known a person with dementia knows his look: There’s a lot of confusion there, with increasingly rare flashes of the person he used to be. The character’s occasional eruptions offer the audience a taste of what the younger Savages must have gone through, and it gives the viewer an appreciation for how complex their emotions must be. This guy was a jerk, after all. It’s a testament to the awfulness of Lenny’s condition that this doesn’t really matter.

The Savages is another one of those films I’m hesitant to recommend strictly because it does what it does so well. It’s unlikely that it will ever sit on your DVD shelf, and it’s further unlikely that you’ll want to watch it more than once. But do watch it once.

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