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Compelling Drama Featuring Oscar-Worthy Performances
by Mel Valentin on Dec 21, 2007
Painfully insightful and familiar, The Savages, Tamara Jenkins’ (Slums of Beverly Hills) first film in nearly ten years, explores a subject rarely put on film: the role reversal that occurs when children are forced, by duty, obligation, guilt, or love, to take care of sick or elderly parents who can no longer take of themselves. The Savages is a refreshingly honest, cliché-free, unsentimental comedy-drama that’s elevated into one of the best films of the year by Jenkins’ unobtrusive direction, subtle social commentary and note-perfect, award-worthy performances by Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as siblings struggling with new responsibilities as caretakers for their terminally ill father.
Near forty, Wendy Savage (Laura Linney) struggles to get one of several, semi-autobiographical plays produced or at least obtain a grant to write so she doesn’t have to work as an office temp in New York City. While temping has its perks (e.g., access to free supplies, working on grant applications on the company computer after hours, using the stamp machine or the photocopier for non-work purposes), it’s professionally unrewarding for her. Her personal life is no better. Wendy is also having an unfulfilling romantic relationship with a married man, Larry (Peter Friedman). Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman), her elder brother by three years, has an ongoing gig as a drama professor at a college in Buffalo, New York. Jon is grappling with finishing a book on playwright Bertolt Brecht. He also can’t to commit to his longtime Polish girlfriend and fellow professor, Kasia (Cara Seymour), whose work visa is about to run out.
Their self-centered, insular lives are overturned when Wendy receives a call from a retirement community in Sun City, Arizona. Wendy and Jon’s estranged father, Lenny (Philip Bosco), is suffering from rapidly advancing dementia. He's also penniless. For almost two decades, Lenny has lived off the largesse of his well off, but now deceased girlfriend. Wendy and Jon arrive in Arizona to find Lenny suffering from disorientation, memory lapses, and aggressive behavior. They can do little except bring Lenny back to New York. Jon takes charge of making arrangements for Lenny, opting for a nearby nursing home. Out of guilt and, presumably, a sense of duty, Wendy decides to stay with Jon for the holidays so she can remain close to Lenny. There, she strikes up an awkward friendship with one of Lenny’s aides, the Nigerian-born Jimmy (Gbenga Akinnagbe).
Both Jon and Wendy are deeply flawed characters whose personal, emotional growth, if any, comes in fits and starts. Naturally, Jon and Wendy’s semi-estranged relationship is fraught with barely repressed conflict nurtured by years of competitiveness, jealousy, egotism, and different worldviews. Jon and Wendy’s seemingly minor disagreement over how to care for Lenny and, more specifically, where to care for Lenny gives The Savages room to explore character-based drama punctuated by humor, the kind of discomforting humor only families can provide usually when non-family members are involved. But like real-life siblings, their differences are tempered by genuine, if often exasperating, affection for each other.
As strong as Jenkins' screenplay and direction are The Savages succeeds only as long as Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman turn in one of their usually stellar performances. They do. Considering that Linney was nominated for an Academy Award, won two Emmy Awards and Hoffman has won an Academy Award, it’s not surprising that both actors give lived-in performances.
Linney and Hoffman perfectly capture the fragility and barely-hidden disappointment and vulnerability of their characters, sometimes with a line inflection, sometimes with body language, sometimes with a reaction shot. Taken together, their performances are, in short, a master class in acting. Wait, isn’t it Oscar time?
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
by Mel Valentin on Dec 21, 2007