The film The Savages is smart enough to live in the present, but finds clever ways to give us clues about the characters’ pasts, which is very important, so pay attention. It’s the story about a sister, Wendy, and brother, Jon Savage (Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman) who suddenly have their aging father Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) thrust into their lives when he comes down with a case of dementia and his girlfriend dies. It turns out that neither child even knows where he lives. While the film unfolds in the present the character’s are certainly affected by their pasts and all three give performances that radiate emotional history, a plethora of emotional history. These are probably three of the most well crafted and effective performances I’ve seen this year.
The film making is exceptional as well. For awhile the writer/director Tamara Jenkins finds ways to merge the environment with the performances. Wendy stares at her father’s x-rays absently as the hum of the x-ray machine drowns out the sounds around her. Or as Wendy slowly wakes up Lenny’s voice gradually increases in volume. These are subtle tricks but really ground you into the reality of the film, it’s unfortunate that she stops using these storytelling devices about half way through. Thankfully the writing and direction is strong enough that’s its not a necessity.
There are images at the beginning that have a David Lynch heaven as nightmare flavor that juxtapose nicely with the reality that is soon to become Lenny’s life as his children bring him to a nursing home. You can feel the city surround you and almost engulf you. There are touching moments of sadness, scary moments of sudden anger and moments of hilarity but none of them feel false or contrived, in fact many are quite moving. The only point in the film that lost my interest is when Wendy begins to fall for a male nurse at her Father’s nursing home. It seemed like an unnecessary distraction from the rest of the movie. There was enough going on to tell the story and I found myself getting antsy, knowing how the relationship would end. Thankfully it was only a small portion of the film and got back on track quickly. The prickly Hoffman does a marvelous job of stepping back and allowing the insecure Linney to be the movie’s center. It takes a great actor to allow no ego to creep into a project like this. Unlike Wahlberg and Phoenix’s little project We Own the Night there’s no ego on display at all here. It’s what gives the film it’s immediacy. This is how real people talk, how real people live, and in relating that world so clearly to the audience everything is surprising.
Wounds aren’t healed, but by caring for their father an understanding is found, an understanding that perhaps allows Wendy and Jon to mature and realize the importance of creating strong healthy bonds with the people around them. But while some maturity is gained we wonder at the last shot of the film. Wendy tries so hard to avoid the reality of death for so long that it’s a final moment that is very bittersweet, not all things I guess can be outgrown.