Sundance review: The Savages
Bottom Line: A perceptive and often strangely funny coming-of-middle-age story.PARK CITY -- As writer-director of "The Slums of Beverly Hills" in 1998, Tamara Jenkins demonstrated an ability to steal much humor from the spectacle of ordinary lives as lived by a perceptive yet self-absorbed and neurotic family. With her second long-awaited film, "The Savages," she not only confirms that ability but also adds a deeper dimension: Her two main middle-aged characters are in the process of discovering themselves as they cope with demons from their past. It is more sad-funny than funny-funny, but Jenkins has enough empathy and wit to realize that even the sad parts are, somehow, funny.
??? "The Savages" is not going to become the cult film like "Slums" did. It doesn't have a sexy subject -- two siblings dealing with their father's dementia and mortality -- so even stalwarts of art houses may hesitate. Fortunately, the cast of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney is a certain boxoffice draw, and Fox Searchlight has a good track record in marketing tricky films.
?? It all begins with a phone call. It's a call all middle-aged people with aging parents know will come: Dad has gone around the bend mentally and can no longer function on his own. Complicating matters is that Dad (Philip Bosco) lives in an Arizona retirement community while his grown children live on the East Coast. The two siblings react very differently to this challenge. These reactions stem from their estrangement from a father, who was abusive when they were young.
?Interestingly enough, both are involved with theater. Jon (Hoffman) is a theater arts professor in Buffalo, who teaches dramatic literature and labors on a book about Brecht, a book that has much of his professional career riding on its success. Meanwhile, his relationship with a Polish woman seems to be coming to an end with the expiration of her visa.
Wendy (Linney) is a playwright in New York. An unproduced playwright, which means she performs odious temp jobs, steals as many office supplies as possible and endlessly applies for grants so she can write full time. Dependant on various pills to pull through the day, Wendy has buried her social life in a dead-end relationship with a married neighbor (Peter Friedman).
?Jon wants to get this Dad Thing over with quickly. He flies in and out of Arizona to help sis make arrangements so he can get back to his book. He leaves such details as getting dad on an airplane for a wildly uncomfortable move to his new home to his sister. Back in Buffalo, he locates a nursing home near his house and there it's done. Only it's not.
?Wendy wants to make everything just so for her father despite his awful shortcomings in the parenting game. She squabbles with her brother over all the arrangements and is forced to live with him, albeit briefly, for the first time in years. Boy, does that trigger bad memories and old habits.
?So on the surface, Jenkins gives us the complicated struggle of the siblings to see that their mentally unstable father may die in some peace. The real movie plays out beneath that surface, of course, as she examines the details of the siblings' lives and how these relate to their damaged childhoods. Wendy loves pets and indulges in an absurd sexual relationship. Jon is willing to see a woman he loves leave while struggling with a book that he can never quite finish. Everything relates to a screwed-up past.
?Jenkins walks this dramatic tightrope with breathtaking ease. The humor is never forced but always springs from the characters and situations naturally.
?Cinematographer Mott Hupfel takes his cues from this to shoot the film in wintry tones, achieving a naturalism that goes with Jane Ann Stewart's often messy, lived-in sets. Stephen Trask's understated though pleasing music heightens the drama in this movie that seemingly takes place in two time zones -- the present and the most uncomfortable past.
?THE SAVAGES Fox Searchlight Pictures Lone Star Film Group of This Is That Productions in association with Ad Hominem Enterprises and Cooper's Town Productions Credits: Writer/director: Tamara Jenkins; Producers: Ted Hope, Anne Carey, Erica Westheimer; Executive producers: Jim Burke, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor, Anthony Bregman, Fred Westheimer; Director of photography: Mott Hupfel; Production designer: Jane Anne Stewart; Music: Steven Trask; Costumes: David Robinson; Editor: Brian A. Kates. Cast: Wendy: Laura Linney; Jon: Philip Seymour Hoffman; Lenny: Philip Bosco; Larry: Peter Friedman; Jimmy: Gbenga Akiknnagbe. MPAA rating: R, running time 113 minutes.