The Savages is a very good film. And yet I found it disappointing on what I can only describe as a metaphysical level. It is the sort of film that, while ringing with laudable authenticity and an admirable lack of maudlin sentimentality, prefers wallowing in misery to reaching for transformation.
The Savage siblings, Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy (Laura Linney) thought they had left their troubled past behind. Having escaped their domineering father, their absentee mother and even each other, both have settled into lives of quiet desperation. A college drama professor, Jon lives in a rickety house in Buffalo, supposedly writing the definitive (but never quite ready for his editor) book on Bertolt Brecht. Wendy inhabits a New York City apartment the size of a postage stamp, works as a temp while imagining herself a playwright, and is carrying on an illicit affair with an older neighbor.
Their cocooned, inoculated lives come to an end when they discover that their estranged father, Lenny (Philip Bosco), ensconced in Sun City, Arizona — a sort of geriatric, 1950’s Disneyland utopia — is suffering from dementia and desperately requires their help.
Like so many 30-somethings, Jon and Wendy are in a state of arrested development, not children, certainly, but not yet adults either. As they embark down the troublesome and emotional difficult road of finding a comfortable place for their father to live out the remainder of his days — more, we are told, than he ever did for them — the siblings find themselves once again under one roof, chaffing under each other’s eccentricities.
Director Tamara Jenkins, who last wrote and directed 1998’s Slums of Beverly Hills, based much of this tragicomedy on her own experiences dealing with a parent suffering from dementia. The extraordinary cast gives exactly the sort of rich, nuanced performances one would expect. Hoffman, who never fails to impress, has perfected playing the sort of sadsack for which we can’t help but rout, and Linney, one of our greatest, if most underappreciated actresses, has never look lovelier.
Unfortunately the film’s central musings on aging and mortality are lost amidst the subplot of squabbling sibling neurosis. Deeply flawed and blisteringly human (these are not the sorts of people with whom you’d want to be friends), Jon and Wendy’s adolescent immaturity and miserable existences overshadow what was surely intended to be the film’s primary message — how a messy family deals with the humiliation of aging. The plot is supposedly oriented around caring for Lenny Savage, yet his children treat him as if he’s invisible. On screen for half the film but given paltry few lines, Lenny is little more than a MacGuffin for his children’s neurosis.
Many independent films, proving Newton’s Third Law that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, have countered Hollywood’s penchant for melodramatic and saccharine plots by crafting similar stories bundled with starkly different values. More often than not this means draining a film of anything even remotely sensational or syrupy, substituting a story about depressed people we cannot remotely hope to like, and calling it honest. And while there is a lot of truth to the claim that happy endings happen only in Hollywood, these films lose something as equally important as the truth they champion — they lose their humanity. Too often, humor comes at the expense of, not in response to, characters’ situations.
Jon and Wendy never reconcile to their father. Never forgive him. Never begin seeing each other as valuable, treasured allies. Never take any steps closer to that elusive Promised Land known as adulthood. Never, that is, until after a title card in the closing minutes that reads: “Six Months Later.” Somehow they found the will, strength and resources to jumpstart their becalmed lives. But how? The events hidden behind that title card are what I really wanted The Savages to be about.