Savages, The (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Savages is being described in some corners as a "dark comedy," but such a designation does a great disservice to Tamara Jenkins' picture. This is not a comedy but a drama. To the extent that there is humor, it emerges from the uncomfortable situations in which the characters find themselves. To call The Savages a comedy is to set an expectation level that will not be met. No viewer will leave this movie smiling and upbeat, having spent 120 minutes laughing and chuckling. Instead, the film offers insight into painfully awkward family dynamics and, while a note of hope is sounded upon closing, it will not send audiences dancing to the exits.

Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) is suffering from dementia and is no longer capable of living on his own. So his care falls to the most improbable candidates: his two adult children, Wendy (Laura Linney) and Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman), neither of whom is kindly disposed toward their ailing sire. Both carry deep emotional scars as a result of childhood mistreatment by Lenny. Nevertheless, since he has no one, they fill the vacuum and find him a place in a nursing home where he can live out his days until his failing health overcomes his systems. In order to facilitate easier visits to her father, Wendy temporarily relocates from her New York City apartment to Jon's cluttered home. This creates friction between brother and sister, and their visits to an often fractious Lenny leave them in a perpetual bad mood.

Dementia and Alzheimer's, two similar yet different conditions, are difficult subjects for motion pictures because they impact viewers in ways that are equally intimate and unpleasant. Who wants to sit in a theater and re-live an experience he or she may have gone through with a loved one? The phrase "too close to home" exists for movies like this; escapism it's not. Sarah Polley's Away from Her deals with a similar situation in a knowing, sensitive manner. The Savages is less gentle and genteel, and more about how the condition acts like a magnifying glass on the damaging actions of characters when they were of sound mind and body. Wendy and Jon dislike their father for what he did to them, but they feel guilty about that dislike in view of his present circumstances.

Even as Wendy and Jon's present is shaped by their father's care needs, so their personalities were fashioned by their father's treatment of them as children. Both are insular commitment-phobes - around age 40, neither is married. Wendy is a bundle of neuroses. She is wracked by guilt, plagued by self-esteem issues, and willing to settle for being second-best. Jon is brilliant but lazy, resistant to change, and doesn't have a high opinion of his sister. These two co-exist like oil and water, uncomfortable around each other but forced into close proximity by their situation. Both feel tied to the man who caused them so much grief, even admitting that they're doing a lot more for him than he did for them. It would be hard to find a more perfect picture of a dysfunctional family.

As is often the case will character-driven pieces like this, the strength of the acting (in concert with the psychological insight it provides) is what elevates the material, and both Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman are in top form. It would be unsurprising if both received repeat Oscar nominations for their sometimes harrowing, sometimes raw, sometimes poignant performances. In terms of pure acting, this is some of the best work to reach the screen in 2007. (Although it's a close call to say whether Hoffman is better here or in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.) As the pugnacious Lenny, Philip Bosco holds his own.

The Savages will appeal to those who value character interaction and don't mind being discomfited by the eccentricities of the protagonists or the tensions that exist between them. These are fascinating, three-dimensional individuals brought into the foreground by a pair of today's finest actors. Expect drama but not melodrama; occasional moments of dry, dark wit but no unrestrained mirth; and, above all, consideration of what it means to lose first one's memory and mind then one's life.

Savages, The (United States, 2007)

Director: Tamara Jenkins
Cast: Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Bosco
Screenplay: Tamara Jenkins
Cinematography: W. Mott Hupfel III
Music: Stephen Trask
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 2007-11-30
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1