Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Savages

The Savages is a 2007 2-time Academy Award-nominated American film (Best Actress in a Leading Role and Best Original Screenplay), written and directed by Tamara Jenkins. The film stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It had a limited release on November 28, 2007. After drifting apart emotionally and geographically over the years, two single siblings Wendy (Laura Linney) and Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) must band together to care for an elderly parent (Philip Bosco). Visiting their father in his nursing home and their father's eventual death helps each sibling to better deal with their love relationships with others.

Nine years was far too long to wait for Tamara Jenkins's sophomore feature, The Savages, her astonishingly mature follow-up to the quirky coming-of-age comedy The Slums of Beverly Hills. The time must have been well-spent, because The Savages feels like the work of a far more seasoned director, and manages to land a KO punch squarely in the jaw of the prototypical "indie" character drama that's become the hallmark of the Sundance Film Festival. The Savages has depth, resonance, and meaning. It delves into the scary heart of our deepest fears about aging, and it does so from a point of view that is honest and human.

Laura Linney stars as Wendy, an anxiety-prone wannabe playwright with a married boyfriend and a pointless cubicle temp job. Her estranged father (Philip Bosco) has begun to slip into dementia. When Dad's girlfriend dies leaving him homeless, Wendy and older brother John (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a PhD specializing in Bertolt Brecht, fly to Arizona tasked with the burden of making the kind of hard decisions that mark the final passage into adulthood. In the parking lot of a swank retirement community that won't take Dad because he's too far gone, John reminds Wendy that people are dying inside. And there's nothing that any amount of landscaping or bingo or carefully chosen room decorations can do about it.

Adult brother-sister siblings are rare onscreen; in fact, the only other recent movie that's captured this relationship with any accuracy is You Can Count On Me, which starred Linney as a tightly-wound older sister. Here, she's the younger sibling, but Wendy thinks she should be the responsible one--and that dynamic rings so true for sisters. Brothers run around with their shirts untucked and live on ramen noodles well into their 30s and have disorganized relationships. They're not the ones who are expected to take capable charge of end-of-life decisions. That's supposed to be women's work--but Wendy's lost from square one.

Wendy is unmoored by the growing realization of her brother's competence and tender compassion. As the story progresses, her eyes grow wider and blanker, silently screaming "I don't want to be here" even as her sense of guilt turns her into stone. John's stoic acceptance of the situation and confident decision-making infuriates her, and she ends up telling a stupid, childish lie in an attempt to wrestle some control over her part in the family psychodrama. She's in real danger of not making it, of checking out forever and condemning herself to an empty life, but the pull of family--however screwed up--might just be what saves her.

The film's portrayal of the devastation and heartbreak that dementia wreaks on the children of the afflicted is spot on, thanks to a superb performance by Bosco, an underrated actor who shows admirable restraint in some very difficult situations. In Slums, Jenkins showed an acute insight into the way a teenage girl's body betrays her, and here she turns that same perception onto the gross indignities suffered by the aging. As John puts it, "Death is gassy."

There's a standout scene early in the film when Wendy's flying Dad back to Buffalo, where John has found him a bed in a nursing home. After loudly demanding that Wendy take him to the bathroom NOW, Dad shuffles painfully down the narrow aisle, Wendy carefully holding his arms, looking him in the eye but unable to hide the fact that she wishes this wasn't happening. He looks down at his feet, in the classic "someone is about to pee their pants" shot, and as he keeps walking, the suspense is excruciating. He stops; his eyes widen, then Wendy looks down. He hasn't lost control, it's just that his pants have fallen down because Wendy didn't like the suspenders he was wearing. And then Jenkins cuts away for a shot aching with poignant horror: Dad in the middle of the aisle, wearing adult diapers. He's incontinent and unloved , and Jenkins and Bosco are brave enough to give it to us straight and unvarnished.

As sad and serious as it is, The Savages has some wonderfully funny moments, including some physical humor from Hoffman in a weighted neck brace that adds some welcome leaven. Hoffman and Linney exceed expectation with nuanced performances that are never showy, even in the most dramatic moments. Jenkins knows how to get out of the way of the story, and rarely missteps. A scene between Wendy and one of Dad's caregivers falls a little flat, as does an odd bit with John's Polish ex-girlfriend and some eggs that inexplicably make him cry, but these are minor quibbles. The Savages sets a high bar for Sundance '07 and marks a standout return by a director who's the real deal.

The hands that rock the cradle sometimes tip it over. Watching “The Savages,” Tamara Jenkins’s beautifully nuanced tragicomedy about two floundering souls, you have to wonder if those hands didn’t also knock that cradle clear across the nursery, sending both Savage children into perpetual free-fall.

Certainly Jon Savage, the angry lump played by a brilliant — oh, let’s just cut to it — the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman, looks like a man who’s taken as much abuse as he likes to deliver. One night, Jon, a college professor who lives and teaches in Buffalo, is awakened from a deep sleep (Ms. Jenkins has a nice way with metaphor) to discover that his father, Lenny (a fine Philip Bosco), has gone around the bend and has begun finger-painting with his feces. The bearer of these unfortunate tidings is Jon’s younger sister, Wendy (Laura Linney, sharp and vanity free), a self-professed playwright whose greatest, perhaps only creation is the closely nurtured story of wounded narcissism and family wrongs unwinding in her head.

They mess you up, your mum and dad, Philip Larkin more or less wrote, which, though it provides steadfast inspiration for poets of all disciplines, has emerged as one of the banes of American independent cinema. At first glance “The Savages,” which had its premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival, looks like another one of those dreaded indie encounter sessions in which everyone cracks wise and weary on the bumpy road to self-actualization. Ms. Jenkins, whose gifted first feature, “Slums of Beverly Hills,” fired up movie screens and critics nearly a decade ago, seems incapable of such falsity. I bet she knows the rest of Larkin’s poem, namely, “They fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you.”

Ms. Jenkins never explains how or why or even if Lenny filled Jon and Wendy with his faults, and what caused his wife, their mother, to run away. She omits the talk-show psychology and instead lets the clues seep through the realistic-sounding snippets and strings of dialogue, through sentences (not speeches), questions (not confessions) and silences as lived in as the story’s recognizably real and revelatory spaces. In Wendy and Jon’s separate if similarly cluttered homes, you can almost see the layers of aspiration and disappointment that have accumulated alongside the dust and the books; in Lenny’s sterile house in Sun City, Ariz., you see a man who has not only wiped away his past, but has also erased part of his own self.

In their dyspeptic, quarrelsome fashion, the Savages are blissfully neurotic, often very funny variations on J. M. Barrie’s fictional offspring, John and Wendy Darling, those charmed, magical storybook children. (In their moments of terrifying mutual dependency they can also recall the brother and sister in Jean Cocteau and Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Enfants Terribles.”) If Ms. Jenkins’s middle-age characters have never grown up, in spirit and mind if not in body, it isn’t because they flew off to Neverland in a cloud of fairy dust, but because they did not and could not leave. Yet if Jon and Wendy have stayed locked inside, Ms. Jenkins also suggests — through an image of flight of surprising force and beauty — that some children find other means of escape, including their imaginations.

Ms. Jenkins doesn’t imply that all that pain is a worthwhile price to pay for imagination, but she acknowledges the paradoxical truth that suffering can also be a source of inspiration, a way out of the childhood room we sometimes call the past. For Jon, who is writing a book on Brecht, and his playwright sister, life has become something of a performance. Both were probably given a role to play a long time ago — superior brother, resentful sister — and now act out their parts to perfection. (Jon, who clings to Brecht as if to a baby blanket, is something of a walking alienation effect. ) Jean Renoir once asked, Where does theater end and life begin? Ms. Jenkins seems to answer that question reasonably by saying there is no separation.

It would give away too much to reveal what happens to these distinctly nondarling siblings, whose outbursts and moments of hilarious, often voluble cruelty border on the shrill and the unspeakable. Ms. Jenkins has a gift for family brutality, but she herself isn’t a savage talent. There isn’t a single moment of emotional guff or sentimentality in “The Savages,” a film that caused me to periodically wince, but also left me with a sense of acute pleasure, even joy. It’s the pleasure of a true-to-life tale told by a director and actors who’ve sunk so deep into their movie together you wonder how they ever surfaced. You live with Jon and Wendy Savage gratefully, even when they can’t always do the same.


ordago13 said...

great comment on the film mine was chorter but hope not worst..

i liked the movie...

check the idea it looks lot like european cinema drama´s

Edward Hugh said...

Hi ordago,

"i liked the movie..."

Me too.

"great comment on the film mine was chorter but hope not worst.."

Yes, well this isn't my comment, this is a sort of collage of things I found on the web. I write about economics. This blog is simply a scrap book to help me remember the films I have seen.

Good luck with your blog.