Director: Tamara Jenkins
Starring: Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Lately every film that centers on a family seems to center on a quirky family, which is perhaps what makes The Savages so refreshing. Siblings John (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy (Laura Linney) Savage aren’t adorably eccentric, but compellingly ordinary people dealing with an unpleasant but inevitable fact of life: someday your parents will get old and you will have to take care of them. It can be a difficult film to watch at times, but it’s entirely worth it.
In their own ways both John and Wendy exist in a state of arrested development. John is a theatre professor whose girlfriend is about to be deported to Poland. They’ve been dating for three years but he won’t marry her, arguing that since her job might require her to move across the country anyway, then she might as well be in Poland (Wendy’s succinct response? “You’re an idiot”). Wendy is a temp and unproduced play write carrying on an affair with a married man. Neither has much of a relationship with their father (Philip Bosco), who lives in Arizona with his girlfriend. When the girlfriend dies, it falls on John and Wendy to care for their father, who has started showing signs of dementia.
As siblings will tend to do, John and Wendy spend a lot of time fighting – fighting over who will take care of their father and when, what home to put him in, and Wendy’s belief that John has no confidence in her abilities as a writer. In one of the film’s most emotionally intense scenes, they fight about their father as if he’s not sitting there with them and their father slowly reaches up to turn down his hearing aide and pulls his hood over his head as if to block them out – he might not be “there” all the time, but he is still there.
Hoffman renders a great performance, but when it comes down to it, this is Linney’s movie and her performance is a thing of solid, understated beauty. At 39, Wendy is still waiting for her life to start, to get a break in her career, to have a “real” relationship. She accuses her boyfriend of being in the midst of a mid-life crisis and he scoffs at her calling herself the “younger woman,” insisting that she’s a little old to be laying claim to that moniker. Wendy is projecting, telling him that he’s in crisis because, like her brother, she is having a crisis. There’s a reason why neither of the younger Savages is in a solid relationship and there’s a reason why neither has kids, and it has to do with the much implied trauma inflicted on them by their parents when they were children. At the end of the film, when it seems as though John and Wendy have finally come to terms with the past, their lives finally begin in earnest.
With The Savages writer/director Tamara Jenkins delivers something which is itself savage in its honesty. This is an unflinching story that offers no easy answers and doesn’t try to make the situation look prettier than it is. Like I said, it can be a difficult movie to watch (even the moments of comedy are of the “so mortifying it’s funny” variety), but it’s definitely a movie worth seeing.