Directed by Tamara Jenkins
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laura Linney, Philip Bosco
Release date: Nov. 28, 2008 (Limited)
“I wish I could just sleep until I was eighteen and skip all this crap-high school and everything-just skip it.” — Dwayne Hoover from Little Miss Sunshine
“We’re doing the right thing, Wendy. We’re taking better care of the old man than he ever did of us.” — Jon Savage from The Savages
The Savages: Close To The Bone
The Savages is brutal, honest, funny, and very painful to watch. Tamara Jenkins has crafted a film that hits so close to home for me that I was tempted to walk out at several junctures. This is not to say that she has made a bad film — nothing could be further from the truth. The Savages is an unflinching look at what it means to grow old in America — what it means when the children of aging parents have to step up and take responsibility.
Tamara Jenkins pulls no punches and refuses to sugarcoat her film. If Slums Of Beverly Hills was an honest coming of age story, then The Savages is an honest coming of maturity story. The film serves as a wonderful companion piece to Slums Of Beverly Hills. Jenkins has a natural flair for sibling relationships and their detached relationships to their parents, especially fathers.
It has been nine years since Slums Of Beverly Hills was released. It is a very long time to be gone from the film industry. Some directors can get away with it and others cannot. In this day and age of short attention spans, I would imagine it is not the wisest move to be absent too long. She made only one short film in 2004 called Choices: The Good, the Bad and The Ugly. Regardless, Jenkins has made a wickedly good film. It is not for everyone. Yet, in an era where more adult children are taking care of their older parents, it is a very necessary film. It would have been very easy to write Tamara Jenkins off, but she comes back and makes a very forceful second feature film — in some ways, too forceful and to in your face. But as uneasy as the film is to watch, she brings her trademark humor into the picture whenever things get too dire. I Can Count On You and Little Miss Sunshine would be the two films that act as a bridge between her two films. The estranged sibling relationship of I Can Count On You and the dysfunctional familial dynamics of Little Miss Sunshine serve as an important cinematic bridge between her two films.
Jon and Wendy Savage are the estranged children of Lenny Savage. Lenny (Philip Bosco) lives with his girlfriend of twenty years in a retirement community in Arizona. When his girlfriend dies, Lenny has nowhere to go. Lenny Savage is in the early stages of dementia when his adult children come to get him. Wendy (Laura Linney) is an aspiring playwright who works as a temp in New York City. She is applying for grants in order to finish her play, “Wake Me When It’s Over.” Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a college professor in Buffalo who is trying to finish his book about Bertolt Brecht. The children are both aspiring writers. They are trying to make their own way in the world and they have their own problems. They are not a close clan. They have been estranged from their father for a long time. The mother had abandoned them long ago. The absent mother is a constant motif in Ms. Jenkins’ films. When they go down to retrieve Lenny, it opens up a can of worms. They must take time out of their own lives and do something neither one of them is prepared for — take care of their ailing father. There is a very strong argument to be made that Bosco’s Lenny is an older version of Alan Arkin’s Murray Abromowitz from Slums Of Beverly Hills. Like Alan Arkin in that film and Little Miss Sunshine, veteran character actor Philip Bosco delivers a strong performance. But unlike Arkin, there is very little to laugh at with Lenny. Philip Bosco, like Rip Torn, has a towering presence on the screen. Each actor has found a film in the last several years that reminds us of their vitality in the medium. For Rip Torn, it was Forty Shades Of Blue in 2005. For Bosco, Lenny Savage is a truly remarkable and difficult role. He is by no means a likable character. He is suffering from dementia. His children are trying to find a retirement home to put him. The role could easily turn into unintended farce in another performer’s shoes, but Bosco plays it for real. There is a genuine fear to face. He does not know what is going on. There is an authenticity in his facial expressions and gestures that betrays nothing. In a year of brave performances, Lenny Savage stands out — it’s the bravest performance of Bosco’s career.
As Jon and Wendy Savage, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney are nothing short of perfect. Jon Savage is nothing like Gust Avrakotos from Charlie Wilson’s War or Andy Hanson from Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead. How does he do it? Hoffman has played three totally different characters in one year. It is an astounding feat. He possesses an impressive range. Jon Savage does not want to be bothered by his father’s problem. He wants to help, but keep a distance. I also like how he is fixated on Brecht just as Steve Carell’s Frank Hoover was fixated on Marcel Proust. Jon is very much like his sister, Wendy. Laura Linney brings a lot to the role. Like Joan Allen, she brings a lot to each performance. Like Joan Allen, she does not get the respect and recognition she deserves. At times, it is hard to tell whether Hoffman or Linney are acting — acting comes to them naturally. Both characters are self-medicators and obsessive cereal eaters. Both of them have relationship issues. As much as they have tried to get away from their roots, they are very much their father’s children. While it is very tempting to compare the sibling relationship with the one in You Can Count On Me, I do not think it is the same. Laura Linney was the more responsible one in that film to Mark Ruffalo’s misfit. In The Savages, both siblings are in the purgatory between arrested development and adulthood. The whirlwind of individual psychodramas and creative pursuits must be put on hold. It is time to grow up and do the right thing. Lenny may not have been a good father, but maybe the children can do better and take care of him. Ironically, the film echoes some of the same adulthood themes of Lars And The Real Girl. In the end, The Savages is a film about growing up and making sacrifices.
Tamara Jenkins has made a very important movie for our times. The Savages is the perfect film as we enter the year where the Baby Boomers start to retire. It is the perfect blend of drama and comedy — Jenkins gets the balance just right. Now I must come clean: I am a part-time caregiver for my father. He had a massive stroke ten years ago. Watching Lenny Savage was like looking in a large mirror of my life. Ms. Jenkins gets it very right as her film hits very close to home. There is a scene halfway through the film where Wendy takes Lenny on an airplane. It is a cringe-inducing scene. The flight is a disaster as he has to go to the bathroom. I understood this scene all too well. As uncomfortable as the film may make us feel, I am grateful to watch a film that gets it right. Tamara Jenkins never plays her audience for fools. If The Savages is a film about reaching maturity and adulthood, then Ms. Jenkins has made the ultimate film on these themes.