Directed by:Tamara Jenkins
As anyone familiar with Dr. Sherwin Nuland’s book “How We Die”, (winner of the 1994 National Book Award for non-fiction) can tell you, the only chapter in life which indisputably comes after old age is death … and death is often preceded by a decline in bodily function which steals the essence of an individual’s dignity. Small wonder then that the subject is avoided more than examined in the movies, especially when those involved are ill-equipped to deal with the multiple challenges such a decline presents. Writer/director Tamara Jenkins, (The Slums of Beverly Hills) tangentially visited this topic 14 years ago in her short film Family Remains and she’s returned to it here in this comically somber examination of dysfunctional siblings forced to deal with their estranged father’s end-stage illness.
Wendy Savage, (Laura Linney) a wanna-be playwright coping with a married lover, “temps” in New York City while her brother Jon, (Philip Seymour Hoffman) teaches comparative literature at a college in Buffalo as he struggles to complete a book on Bertolt Brecht. Their father Lenny, (Philip Bosco) lives with a woman in her Sun City Arizona home, the physical distance from his children exceeded only by his remote connection to their lives. When he shows signs of dementia and his ladylove passes away in the midst of a manicure, Wendy and Jon find themselves forced to confront their dad’s need for care and their responsibility to provide it. They sheppard Lenny into a nursing home in Buffalo so Wendy can temporarily move in with her brother while the two of them begin a disorienting death-watch that tests their capacity to exchange mutual alienation for genuine, if grudging acceptance.
Reconciliation and/or redemption aren’t objectives here; Jenkins chooses instead to present a rigorous examination of kinship under the stress of impending death in a thoroughly secularized family. As the days stretch into weeks, it becomes apparent the Savage family contains no believers…there are no references to what, if anything, might provide comfort from beyond the grave, no religious tradition employed to provide solace to Lenny nor support for his anguished offspring.
As Wendy, Linney has the most richly developed part in her already distinguished career; as she’s demonstrated in any number of roles since her screen debut in Lorenzo’s Oil, she possesses an impressive capacity to project an intelligence wrapped in physical beauty that’s unsure of itself, which gives her the opportunity to lace her often vulnerable characters with doses of unintended comic charm. Wendy’s brittle relationships with the men in her life reflect the impact of a mother who abandoned her children to the care of a father who provided for them materially and then drifted out of their lives, leaving behind a brother and sister with bright minds, frustrated career ambitions and little capacity to connect intimately with others. Her frantic volubility is offset by Hoffman’s academic armadillo; with doughy physique and weary stoicism, Jon sees his father’s future with painful clarity and his sister’s refusal to face the facts as yet another example of her inability to deal with life as it is, rather than how she’d like it to be. Hoffman delivers an essentially unsympathetic character who somehow manages to rise to crucial occasions with a supple blend of candor and dignity, a man who struggles on despite having nearly given up on his own life, much less that of his father’s. Jon’s depressed, Wendy’s into avoidance; an unlikely pair of care-givers, yet the two of them somehow manage to repay their dad’s commitment to them in childhood by tending to his needs - - if not throughout his dotage, at least during the final days of his old age.
Director Jenkins and her cinematographer W. Mott Hupfel III launch The Savages with an ironic homage to Busby Berkeley’s hopelessly saccharine ‘30’s musicals when a chorus line of septuagenarian beauties appear from behind a well-groomed golf course hedge to declare the many advantages of living a life of carefree retirement in a place where golf carts have replaced cars and the homes are uniformly well-kept and depressingly similar. Having introduced Lenny in this near-freakish, sun-dappled paradise, Hupfel’s camera assumes a more photographic air, positioning his camera so that viewers are not only aware of what they’re seeing, but conscious of doing so. It’s a painterly effect, reminiscent of his work on The Notorious Bettie Paige, a biography of the well-known pin-up model in pre-Playboy America, when soft-core porn began to emerge from the shadows into public view. Hupfel’s concentration on essentially static images reoccurs frequently here; as Hoffman’s touchingly strangled late-night phone conversation with a departing girl friend unfolds, the scene is frozen by an extended shot from a darkened bedroom into a half-lit bathroom, with deep vertical shadows framing the actor’s face, making the sound of his voice ever more melancholy because of the asperity of the camera’s point of view.
Because Savages’ storyline is so simple, the script contains a series of random exchanges for Wendy with her father, brother, lover and various members of the nursing home staff. They serve to pad out the film’s length rather than lend any particular insight into her character and the plot’s unexpected, Hallmark greeting card ending seems tacked on, perhaps to counterbalance the decidedly downbeat nature of the material, but more probably to insure sufficient box-office to cover the movie’s production costs. Yet the whole of The Savages is far more satisfyingly important than the mere sum of its parts; when Jon furiously describes to Wendy what’s in store for their father as the two of them stand in the nursing home’s parking lot, Savages becomes a piercing examination of a subject American culture avoids like the plague; the implications of death in a society which idolizes youthful images and holds any clear-eyed examination of its consequences at bay by irrationally denying its very existence.
Ms. Jenkins hasn’t made a great film, but she has fashioned a ruefully pertinent one, featuring a pair of superb performances which provide the opportunity to examine one’s own feelings about life’s final moments. Given the squirming obvious in the audience I saw this movie with, the director hit home with disquieting effectiveness.
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