(No longer in theaters)
Tamara Jenkins’s The Savages is a super-bleak family drama about fortyish unmarried siblings (Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman) who must put their estranged but increasingly helpless old father (Philip Bosco) into a convalescent facility—or it would be super-bleak if all those frogs didn’t keep leaping out of the characters’ mouths. As a hospital administrator scribbles on the admission form, Linney’s Wendy reads the logo on the pen and brightly pipes up, “Xanax! I take that!” (Silence.) “For anxiety!” (Long silence.) Wendy is a playwright—a struggling playwright—and very endearing in her theatrical way, although her guarded brother, Jon, a professor of theater, finds her blabbiness embarrassing, and her father would be indifferent even if he weren’t in the early stages of dementia. “Savage” is the family name, by the way. You don’t fully register that until an administrator greets the three with a cheerful, “You must be the Savages!”
The Savages is a delightful movie—the perfect companion piece (and antidote) to the year’s other superb convalescent-dementia picture, Away From Her. Jenkins did one-woman shows before moving into film directing with Slums of Beverly Hills, which told the story of her nomadic childhood with a dad who shuttled her and two brothers from one cheap dive to another in the 90210 Zip Code because he wanted them to be educated at the best schools. The Savages is a big leap forward; the funny bubbles up from the sad, the sad gives the funny weight. Jon and Wendy (the names are a wink at Peter Pan) have never managed to leave their ridiculous upbringing behind, but the villain of their story—the one they should be confronting, blaming—isn’t really there.
Bosco doesn’t soften this man or make him easy to read. He has glimmers of awareness, but it’s not in his interest to be too cognizant—it would open him up to rebuke. As in Wes Anderson’s Darjeeling Limited, the siblings have to parent each other, and it’s Wendy and Jon’s push-me-pull-you banter that gives you hope as all the other relationships fall away.
Linney has been this winsome and accessible once before—in You Can Count on Me. But was she this great a comedienne there? Watch Wendy make off with office supplies, tell whopper after whopper to her brother and married lover (Peter Friedman), and bat her blue eyes innocently. Watch her leave her father at the convalescent home and overdramatize—“We are horrible, horrible, horrible people!”—and yet mean every word. Hoffman is the best psychodrama dancing partner imaginable. In Capote and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, he earned foreign-word superlatives: “Bravura!” “Tour de force!” In The Savages, he’s just as good but without the stylization—the tricks—to hide behind. You feel as if you’re watching him—thoughtful, childish, moody, embarrassed about his body, his groggy affect a way of keeping the world at bay. There’s a piano motif by Stephen Trask that captures the movie perfectly—melancholy yet sprightly, it sends you home smiling.