The whole fam damnily
Strong cast and sharp screenplay keep The Savages honest
The “Savages” of the title are a pair of siblings, Jon and Wendy, and their estranged and distant father, Lenny Savage. The children, grown up but not exactly happy and fulfilled, are drawn into an uneasy family reunion when Lenny (Philip Bosco), fading into dementia, must be retrieved from his recently deceased girlfriend’s retirement home in Arizona and brought back to some kind of assisted-living arrangement in Buffalo, N.Y.
Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a rather tattered-looking college professor, whose specialty is modern theater. Younger sister Wendy (Laura Linney) is an aspiring playwright who so far has had no success. Both are also half-entangled in ungainly relationships—he with Polish-born Kasia (Cara Seymour) whose visa is about to expire, and she with a galumphy married guy named Larry (Peter Friedman). Neither is particularly glad to be back in this unmistakably broken family circle, but neither can dismiss the needs of the other—or of their irrevocably disdainful father.
Writer-director Tamara Jenkins (The Slums of Beverly Hills) presents this grimly topical, warts-and-all stuff as very dark comedy, laced (but not exactly leavened by) sardonic humor and a gruff, tenuous compassion. Her award-winning (and Oscar-nominated) screenplay tiptoes skillfully and winningly through the disparate territories of romantic comedy, downbeat psychodrama and American-style family tragedy, and Hoffman and Linney respond with superbly nuanced performances that are both sensitive and unsentimental.
The “cold season” setting (Sun City, Ariz., at first, but primarily autumn and winter in Buffalo) is a matter of emotional weather as much as landscape and climate, and Jenkins and her two stars work several small artistic miracles in revealing the subtleties and oblique glimpses of warmth within the abiding emotional chill that besets all three of the Savages. There is a brusque and engaging honesty in these paradoxical characterizations, something that is reflected in the modest scale of the story’s most conventionally satisfying moments as well.
Hoffman’s understated drollery in moments that combine comedy and suffering looms large among the film’s strong points, not least in that they make good on Jenkins’ allusions to Beckett, Theatre of the Absurd, and Laurel and Hardy. But Wendy’s convoluted struggle for self-respect may be even more central, if only by a tremor or two, and Linney’s darkly comic love scenes with Friedman’s Larry give the film its richest layers of personal emotion.
Bosco’s gloomily unrepentant Lenny is also an emblematic figure worthy of the allusions to iconoclastic modern drama. Gbenga Akinnagbe (as the most engaging of Lenny’s caregivers) has a couple of nice scenes with Linney, and both make touching additions to Jenkins’ gentle up-ending of the conventions of indie-style romantic comedy.