In The Savages, a pair of unhappy, never-married, middle-aged siblings, damaged by and long estranged from their emotionally abusive father, work together to settle that unpleasant parent, now old and unraveling from vascular dementia, in a fluorescent-lit nursing home where he will eventually die. But wait, it gets bleaker: The nursing home is in Buffalo, and it’s wintertime, too.
Why, you ask, would anybody seek out such a study in miserabilism for entertainment? Because The Savages is terrific — a movie of uncommon appreciation for the nature and nurture that go into making us who we are, a perfectly calibrated drama both compassionate and unsentimental. Because as brother and sister Jon and Wendy Savage, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney — two of the most focused, natural actors working today — are in peak form, and together they play off each other with the unfettered, joyous collaboration of great chamber musicians. And also because The Savages is bruisingly funny in the damnedest places, the way life is. Yes, it’s okay to laugh. This is a story of stunted adult children and dying elders in which Jon and Wendy’s raging and increasingly confused father, Lenny — played by Philip Bosco with huffing dignity — selects The Jazz Singer when it’s his turn to choose at the nursing home’s regular movie night, obliviously alienating the predominantly black staff who change his diapers.
Tamara Jenkins, who wrote and directed, displayed a hard-won appreciation for family craziness as a gift to artists (if not to children) in her sharp, semiautobiographical 1998 feature debut, Slums of Beverly Hills. And nine years more of life’s banana peels have only honed her sense of the everyday absurd. Jon, who has cocooned himself in college academia, preaches the gospel of Bertolt Brecht’s theater of social realism to his students and can’t commit to his Polish girlfriend. Wendy, paying the rent as a temp office worker while she writes plays (about awful families), regularly applies for writing grants that she doesn’t get. She also carries on a long, dull affair with a married guy (Peter Friedman, great choice). She tells lies. At one point she steals painkillers from the medicine cabinet of a dead woman.
The Savages — a movie-title family name with adjectival overtones as Jon and Wendy wrestle with guilt — begins in a Disneyfied Arizona senior-citizen community where Lenny has been living for many years in a house owned by his longtime girlfriend. As spry old gals tap-dance to the song ”I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard” (an oldster’s musical touchstone in Reds, too), Jenkins bathes the screen in fake, shiny colors that fade to leaden gray in Buffalo. The end of life, her wise movie consoles, is no easy dance for either the aging or their children, but sometimes a savage wit can do wonders. A