Monday, December 17, 2007

Savage Love

In the nine year interval between her last film The Slums of Beverly Hills and her new film The Savages, director/writer Tamara Jenkins has clearly spent the time building her craft so that she can execute tonal shifts as quickly as one might flick a razor. The film can, within the same moment, produce big belly laughs and then leave an audience in stunned emotional silence (and perhaps more impressively vice-a-versa). Given its pedigree of actors I had no doubt that the film would work well as an affecting drama, but to double as such an outstanding comedy was truly a pleasant surprise. Utilizing the tremendous gifts of her three leads Jenkins has crafted one of the best films of the year.

The Savages feels like Margot at the Wedding's older, wiser and more patient sibling film. Both films feature damaged East Coast intellectuals with toxic familial relationships. Both feature women who cull from their real lives for their art and both women are also having affairs with married men. Savages however, is less aggressive and has less vitriol for its characters and in comparison seems less out-sized. I realized I touted Margot's naturalism when I originally reviewed it, but in retrospect the character was so big and monstrous that one really had to look to find her humanity. Not so in The Savages, here everyone feels real and wears that reality on their sleeve.

In the film Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney play siblings whose insular and barely functioning lives are interrupted when their elderly father's girlfriend dies shortly after he begins to suffer from dementia. The father, Lenny, played by ubiquitous "that guy" actor Phillip Bosco (you've probably seen him as a a judge on one of the Law & Orders) is a mess. Losing control of his facilities, shouting at inappropriate times and is generally unaware of his surroundings, yet Bosco also shows us that there is a sense that there is a functional man at the fringe of his psychosis during brief flashes of lucidity and that man is frustrated.

In taking care of their father, theatre professor Jon Savage (Hoffman) and temp-cum-playwright Wendy Savage (Linney) are at first overwhelmed, then inconvenienced and finally exasperated. As the film progresses we begin to learn that Lenny was hardly an ideal father as Jon ominously intones to his worried sister that "We're doing better by the old man then he ever did for us." The two initially move him from an elderly community in Sun City, Arizona to an assisted living center in Buffalo, New York where the weather matches the film's general mood nicely. Wendy is guilt ridden over putting Lenny in a home and constantly tries to audition him for more upscale facilities, but Lenny is no shape for it.

There is a small but telling bit of business early on in the film that neatly establishes the entire sibling dynamic between Jon and Wendy. When the two initially go to sign their father up at the old age home in Buffalo they are offered his sign in papers. Wendy reaches at first but John is a second faster and snatches the papers away from her and quickly signs them. There is a flash of Wendy's disappointment as John glances at her, he gestures to offer her the paper as if to say "What are you gonna do with them now?" and she shrugs declining them. It's such a tiny, brief moment but any other pair of actors would be hard pressed to replicate it. It establishes a tremendous amount abut the dynamic. The attempts at humanism on Wendy's part coupled with John's more controlling and pragmatic nature.
In having their distant father be so close to them in his rapidly deteriorating state serves as redemptive for both characters. The lies in their relationships are stripped away, they gradually find personal and professional success and slowly but surely the two begin to function better. But it's a long, slow road and it hardly feels pat or Hallmark-y. I realize that from my description that The Savages may not seem like much of a comedy, but let me assure you that the film has plenty of laughs along the way. Hoffman and Linney know how to snipe at each other the way only siblings can. Factor in the fact that outside their spheres of work the two aren't especially well functioning and you have almost instant laughs any time the two are out in public. Jenkins also frequently presents the two in perfectly centered single shots to better underline their isolation. While the bulk of the comedy is largely character based the film is not above taking a few subtle wipes at broader social concerns, not the least of which being the culture of assisted living, the mortgage crisis, misallocated FEMA funds and Medicare (after all, we live in society where stolen percocettes are a boon, not a crime).

The Savages
may be a small film but it serves as a huge emotional experience. One would be hard pressed not to find it relatable at some point, as age and decay is ultimately inevitable as the films wisely shows us. It may seem bleak but it is an enormously satisfying viewing experience and if you have even the slightest interest in the material I would whole-heartedly recommend it.

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