Theatrical Review: Tamara Jenkins
' The Savages opens with old people acting their age: playing a few holes of golf, aqua-aerobics, and even a dance troupe fitted with matching blue-and-silver leotards. Ideally, this is the way to slip into one's golden years; at least for one's kin. Quickly, however, we are introduced to Leonard Savage (Philip Bosco
) eating a bowl a cereal at the Sun City home he shares with his catatonic girlfriend. When Lenny is chastised by a living aide for not flushing the toilet, he pulls a de Sade and writes "Prick" on the wall with his excrement. This is how the other half ages.
On the other side of the country, Lenny's two kids are busying themselves with crap jobs while they attempt to be acclaimed writers. Wendy (Laura Linney
) temps at data-entry cubicles in New York City, using their copiers and mailing capabilities to apply for Guggenheim fellowships. When she can, she also sneaks into the supply room and steals her weight in pens and paper. She comes home to a message on her answering machine about her father's incident and panics. Meanwhile, Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman
) teaches at a second-rate Buffalo college as he attempts to finish research for a book on Bertolt Brecht. When Wendy pleads for him to help her hunt down their father, Jon responds with lethargic wit: "This is not a Sam Shepard play." Article continues below
Jon and Wendy eventually make the trip out to Arizona only to quickly shuttle back to Buffalo to find a suitable retirement community for their father. As they settle Lenny into the dreary Valley View nursing home, the siblings continue to indulge in seismic slips of conscience. Jon canʼt make himself marry his Polish girlfriend before her visa expires, even though her breakfast makes him cry. The man exudes apathetic logic towards his father's condition whereas Wendy struggles to give an above-and-beyond effort for poppa bear. She buys him pillows from American Eagle, puts a lava lamp in his room, and tries to weasel him into a home for more aware seniors. Her relationship with the older, married Larry (Peter Friedman) shows tremors of a born daddy's girl. She even allows Larry's dog on the bed while he sweats and groans on top of her.
As she stews in Buffalo, Wendy's guilt over basically waiting for her father to die is continually impeded by Jon's ferocious honesty. When Wendy pushes for Greenhill Manor over Valley View, Jon quickly straightens her out by reminding her that the lush surroundings are there to "obscure the miserable fact that people die." Jenkins writes and directs these scenes with the knowledge that both Wendy and Jon would be better off if Lenny were dead but there is no calculated cynicism about it; it just happens to be the truth.
Sharply unsentimental and very funny, The Savages lags once the brother and sister decide to keep Lenny in Valley View but has a continuing fascination with the tedious and frustrating nature of death, especially the death of an indisputable bastard. Bosco conjures up the aging lout with deft notes of frustration, befuddlement, and just the lightest hint of regret, but he basically acts as a catalyst for Wendy and Jon to bury their guilt and move on. There are no lessons to be learned from Lenny because he was not a man open to change and therefore never learned a lesson. The subtlety of Lenny's past tortures, delivered in whiffs and whispers almost exclusively, gives shading to the conflict but never defines it; one thing Jenkins never stoops to is bold-facing.
Matching and often surpassing Bosco, Linney plays Wendy with blazing nervosa and a strangely sexual finesse, never more apparent than with Valley View employee Jimmy (Gbenga Akinnagbe), who gets her motor running when he tells her he thinks her play is sad. Though it is chiefly Linney's movie, Hoffman cuts through almost every scene with palpable anger and a devastating melancholy. In Sidney Lumet's recent Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Hoffman played a pompous brat trying to get even with his dad; here his character has already conceded the issue and has willingly exiled himself.
Akin to both the corrosive family issues of Noah Baumbach and the full-bodied character studies of Alexander Payne, Jenkins has shockingly only made two films thus far. But like the aforementioned directors, she writes with a depth of knowledge about the bruises that family members deal each other. In the director's fantastic first film, Slums of Beverly Hills, Natasha Lyonne dealt with a family impeding on her sexual growth in 1970s Hollywood. With the change of address comes a heftier questioning of moral value and familial worth with the inevitable drain of youthful flippancy, and Jenkins rarely averts her gaze from the damage delivered. In her eyes, Jon and Wendy are the poster children for a world where mommy left and daddy stayed to dish out some anguish.