Eclectic films fill the multiplex and arthouse

by Beacon Staff • November 28, 2007

In Richard Linklater's 1995 intercultural study of post-collegiate observations and relationships, Before Sunrise, Ethan Hawke's character observes, "Everybody's parents fucked them up. Rich kids parents gave them too much. Poor kids, not enough. You know, too much attention, not enough attention. They either left them or they stuck around and taught them the wrong things."

The Savages, writer/director Tamara Jenkins' tepid character study on neurotic adults dealing with an ailing father, is further proof that psychiatrists won't have empty couches any time soon. Following Lars and the Real Girl, Margot at the Wedding and The Darjeeling Limited, The Savages continues a trend of Freudian flicks obsessed with their protagonists' unresolved mommy and daddy issues, which they use as a psychological weapon to justify their messy modern lives.

In this vague sophomore effort (after the refreshingly candid and funny Slums of Beverly Hills), Jenkins tackles the issue from the inside out, focusing on the emotional strain placed on middle-aged offspring who must aid an ill father who was never good at taking care of them. Ultimately, though, the clearest message Jenkins can muster up is that it sucks to be old. She may have a knack for delineating complex fortysomethings, but the depiction of the elderly is handled with a touch of compassion and a bedpan full of condescension.

The Savages opens to a slow motion dance number with grannies dancing to choreography in blue cheerleader jumpers, recalling Golden Age Hollywood Busby Berkeley spectacles. An idyllic landscape of luxurious geriatric life is depicted with unlimited golf, romantic two-person bikes and, of course, synchronized swimming. The appearance inside a house in the neighborhood, however, is not as picturesque.

Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco, whose dedicated and studied performance transcends the "crazy old man" persona the script saddles him with) complains that he has to use the restroom, but the nurse refuses to help him because he's not being paid to take care of him. Therefore, Lenny stumbles to the bathroom and, after taking care of business, spreads his feces on the wall, spelling out "prick." Obviously, there's a crisis at hand.

Wendy and Jon Savage (performed exceptionally well by the always-dependable Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, respectively) have severely diametrical methods of dealing with their dementia-diagnosed dad.

Wendy-an aspiring playwright slumming in temp jobs and plundering office supplies-feels immense guilt and becomes fixated on placing him in the best assisted living facility, even if she's delusional about the fact that he's most suited for a nursing home. With a frizzy, slightly curled mop-top hairdo, Linney effortlessly and perceptively channels Wendy's anxiety. Linney often chooses complicated and flawed characters and, in an interview with The Beacon, she explained how she understands them and why she's drawn to those roles.

"I just try and really listen to what the script tells me to do," she said. "With the more complex characters, the text is usually richer and there are hints and clues and I have to figure out where they are and what they're telling me to do. What does the language say? How does it work rhythmically? How does that effect how someone moves? I've played some wonderfully flawed people-I don't think anyone is exempt from that. They're fun to play."

Jon-a professor of avant-garde theatre studies-is ready to unload old pop. He's a bit selfish, but he's also aware of his father's condition and finds no reason to do anything but accept it and put him in a pleasant nursing home. He doesn't have much time to spend on his father-he's too busy agonizing over his academic book on German playwright Bertolt Brecth. Hoffman delves into Jon's mindset of intellectualism and repression, even if the script only gives his character a woefully hokey relationship with his Polish girlfriend who is being deported to work with.

Although Jenkins finds honesty and sincerity in minor moments, she struggles with the big picture. The film never coalesces into something significant or profound. There's a struggle with tone as well. The Savages is less of a pure dramedy and more of a dysfunctional family drama with the giggles. This harms some of the most potent somber sequences, with many scenes building up dramatic depth before they are cut down by a joke to alleviate the pain that hadn't yet been inflicted on the audience. Fortunately, Linney and Hoffman are adept at capturing the human nuances involved in dealing with the aggravation and taxing emotions that came with witnessing a loved one's slow decay.

In a scene after Jon reads Wendy's new play, Wendy asks her judgemental brother if it is "all middle-class whining." It wouldn't be far off to think that Jenkins worries about this also, since that's fundmentally what The Savages amounts to.

Jenkins creates realistic characters even if she's not exactly sure what to do with them, or how to balance character study with themes. Although she's most talented in very small, well-observed moments between siblings, the film never finds substantial cohesion. The result is a collection of observations and strong performances mixed with miscalculated subplots meant to push the film forward. Familial tension is successfully established and there's a reserved frustration perpetually bubbling on the surface, ready to pop. Unfortunately, The Savages doesn't burst as much as deflate.