Of bedpans and Brecht: The Savages ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 5, 2008)

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Jesus, this little weekly post is starting to look like the Philip Seymour Hoffman fan boy page. It’s not by design; it’s just that I can’t  swing a half-eaten tub of stale popcorn around the auditorium lately without hitting another screen image of the man who is rapidly morphing into the Charles Laughton of his generation.

And yes, Hoffman delivers a superb performance in The Savages, the latest from writer-director Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills). In a bit of inspired casting, Jenkins has paired Hoffman up with one of the finest character actresses around, Laura Linney.

Hoffman and Linney are Jon and Wendy Savage, middle-aged siblings saddled with the responsibility of caring for their estranged father, who has been diagnosed with dementia. When his “girlfriend” of twenty years dies, the elder Savage, Lenny (beautifully played by veteran stage actor Philip Bosco) is kicked to the curb by her adult children, who now legally own the Arizona home they shared.

Neither Savage sibling is well-equipped to take care of this unexpected burden. Each is suffering through their own mid-life crisis, and lead self-absorbed lives. Wendy is an aspiring playwright, building stacks of rejection letters as she supports herself working temp jobs. She lives alone in a modest NYC apartment (with the requisite cat) and gobbles down anti-depressants while slogging her way through a passionless affair with a married neighbor.

Jon is a drama professor at an upstate college, spending his spare time doing obsessive research for a book on “the dark comedy” of Berthold Brecht (in one particularly wonderful scene, he grooves to Kurt Weill while cruising in his car, high on Percocet). His love life is also in disarray; his live-in girlfriend of several years is heading back to her native Poland because her visa has expired (along with her hopes of a marriage proposal from the commitment-shy Jon).

Necessity sparks the uneasy family reunion as Jon and Wendy scramble to find a nursing home for Lenny, whose moments of lucidity are marked by the demeaning verbal abuse that obviously drove the siblings apart from their father in the first place (and explains the self-esteem issues that pervade their adult life). It doesn’t take long for long-dormant rivalries and simmering resentments between the brother and sister to re-emerge as well.

This is one of those family angst dramas that could have easily turned into a wrist-slitting downer in the Eugene O’Neill/Harold Pinter vein. After all, it does deal with some heavy issues; existential middle age despair and the looming prospect of the inevitable downward spiral of our parents’ “golden years” does not exactly make for light holiday season fare.

However, writer-director Jenkins strikes a nice balance; while her script doesn’t sugar-coat the film’s central theme (i.e., we’re all gonna die) with maudlin sentimentality, she  also injects just the right amount of levity and  life-affirming moments to keep you engaged. It doesn’t hurt to have Hoffman and Linney on board. I know this is a dreaded cliché, but they made me laugh, and they made me cry. I’d rate this one three and a half Percocets. Enjoy.

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