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Savages, The

dir: Tamara Jenkins
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Oh, parents. They are either the bane or the boon of our existence (or both), as children and even more so as adults, in their prime or their decline.

The Savages has Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney in the lead roles of this quirk-free, fairly downbeat story as siblings looking after a demented elder parent who never really liked them and who rendered them fuck-ups as adults. At least that’s the premise as it seems to me.

The film starts in a surreal fashion with shots of a mystical place called Sun City in Arizona, presumably where old people who aren’t Jewish go to live out their remaining years. The sight of a chorus line of old girls appearing as if from nowhere and starting a dance routine is a strange one that will stay with me for a while.

And not in a pleasant way. We are introduced to an irritable old arsehole called Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) who lives in this Arizonan elder community, just before he becomes single again for the last time. And after a spot of finger painting prior to hospitalisation.

Calls go out to his children Jon and Wendy, who are in their late 30s-early 40s and live on the East Coast. The film spends some time implying greatly that brother and sister are somewhat dysfunctional. Wendy is a pill-popping hypochondriac having an affair with a neighbour. During a depressing sex scene, she reaches out and affectionately pats the neighbour’s dog, deriving more pleasure and comfort from that than the sex act itself.

Jon is a drama professor clearly wandering around in a depressed funk. We are meant to believe that all of Jon and Wendy’s problems essentially point back to their father, who was (it is implied, never made overtly explicit) an ogre until he abandoned them, emotionally then literally.

But now Lenny is decrepit, and suffers from vascular dementia. Ha-ha. Time for revenge, you may think? Or what about scene after scene of teary conflict building up to a crushingly melodramatic confessional scene where the true love of parent for children and vice versa is revealed, resolving many decades of pain and acrimony in a few minutes of screen time?

Not in this film, buddy. I wouldn’t insult anyone’s intelligence by implying there’s anything even vaguely naturalistic about any of this flick, since there is an arch New Yorker kind of pretentious literary sensibility to the proceedings, and especially to the way the two siblings act and live. But what is natural, and muted, is the reaction to the reality of their father’s condition, and the steps they try to take to deal with it.

You couldn’t really call the flick a comedy, but there are a lot of elements that are meant to be amusing, and some of the time they actually manage to be. Wendy, as overacted by Laura Linney in a distracting brunette wig, is prone to overreacting to almost every situation, and always tries to put a fairly happy-happy-joy-joy neurotic spin on everything that’s going on.

When Wendy tries to beautify Lenny’s room in the care facility (old folk’s home) that he ends up in, the results are quite stupefying to us, the viewers, but completely useless to Lenny, except for a lava lamp that captures his curiousity with its pointlessness. A red pillow that she buys for him, an expensive pillow at that, begins a battle with the other old folk’s home residents that she can’t win.

Wendy and Jon are forced to live with one another temporarily in order to be close to the facility where Lenny resides. This allows the siblings not to find ways to resolve any of the issues between them, but to emphasise through arguing how little regard they have for each other. There’s no sense that they hate each other at all, but we get the clear impression that they aren’t very close and also have been rendered not very capable of resolving much of anything, least of all any issues they have with each other.

Jon especially seems to have little respect for Wendy, and, let’s face it, she’s quite a treasure. But he’s a pretty miserable specimen himself. He lacks the ability or the inclination to maintain relationships, and endlessly toils on a book about Bertolt Brecht’s plays that he will never finish, it seemed to me.

Publish or perish, that’s what I always say. He and Wendy argue about lots of things, but especially about the realm upon which they really compete: not for fatherly affections or such, but on the artistic / intellectual realm. She tells Jon that she’s won a grant from the Guggenheim to write a play about their childhood, and he, having applied and failed numerous times to get that same grant, can barely hide his bemusement.

That leads to an argument with an almost inexplicable resolution except for what it says about how self-deluding both siblings are about themselves and their lives. As arguments go it’s not cathartic, it doesn’t lead to deeper understanding, because that’s not what either of them wants. But it is amusing.

What they really want is for Lenny to die, but the guilt for feeling that, and for not being able to provide better care for the crazy old sonofabitch, intermingles with all their other feelings as well.

A support group for carers of those suffering from dementia suggests that they play some old movies, favourites of their parents in order to keep them connected to this world, this life.

I can’t imagine anything being more of a writer’s conceit than such an idea. Surely getting people to look back across the aeons and remember a favoured film from the 1930s is just a recipe for disaster, you’d think. I certainly think so, but when Wendy and Jon try to do their dad a favour, it ends up being a painful shemozzle.

Lenny views the action in The Jazz Singer, the ancient one with Al Jolson, not the one with Neil Diamond, with anger and horror, seeing the father beat the young singer; he believes it to be a real scene from early in his life. But, taken in combination with a scene as depicted in a play written by Wendy later in the film, we are unclear as to what is really going on in Lenny’s demented mind. Is he recalling perhaps being smacked around by his own father, or is he recalling slapping around his own son as well or instead?

This becomes a moot point in a few moments where the scenes of Al Jolson slathering on the blackface makeup takes precedence and makes both Jon and Wendy excruciatingly uncomfortable under the scrutiny of the facility’s predominately African-American staff.

The way in which Linney’s character smiles and thanks the staff afterwards for their forbearance, twice, is simply a jewel beyond price.

It’s not a complicated film, and not enough really happens in order to be able to give a reader an adequate idea of what the film is really like in a review in order to do it justice. It’s an actor’s film, but it’s not overly showy, it doesn’t lend itself to speeches or grand moments. And when Lenny’s time comes, it’s without there having been a scene or two guaranteeing audience satisfaction through resolution.

But nothing resolves a situation, or at least finalises it more than death. It’s a long and tortuous road, though, for those suffering similar ailments and those supporting them. There’s the whole gamut of emotions and experiences, from the base and bodily to the thoughtful and mortal. All of us will lose our parents eventually, if they are not lost to us already. For some it will be swift, for others it will be an ugly, lingering death, as painful for them as for the people around them and those who have to hear about it. Truly it is something to look forward to.

This is life (via reflection through death). The Savages doesn’t overemphasise how messy it can get, but nor does it wallow. It’s a low-key affair that you’d probably enjoy only if you generally enjoy these quiet kinds of films with hams like Linney and Seymour Hoffman hamming up the screen. If you don’t then the two hours will pass like a kidney stone through a urethra.

I enjoyed it, but then I’m funny like that.

7 times they are welcome to pull the plug on me when it’s my time out of 10

“We don't have to go after him, Wendy. We're not in a Sam Shepard play.” – The Savages.