The Savages
Director: Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills)
Writer: Tamara Jenkins
Producers: Ted Hope, Anne Carey, Erica Westheimer
Starring: Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Bosco, Peter Friedman
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 113 min.
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reviewed by Kurt Halfyard
      There is a scene early on in The Savages where Laura Linney, having furtive yet engaging sex with her married mister looks straight at the camera as if to break the fourth wall. Cut to a reaction shot of a ridiculously cute golden retriever, followed by her character, Wendy Savage, making intimate contact with the dog’s paw as she continues to ignore/endure her lover. The scene is both highly effective and timidly evasive and it underscores the strengths and the weaknesses of the film. Linney conveys oodles of body language and expression to make Wendy remarkably believable as a not very noble human being, while the screenplay strains to take the easy way out with cheap animal reaction shots (and and heavy handed symbols like the trials and tribulations of a ficus plant later on). There is certainly many interesting things to say in that we treat our pets with more care and intimacy than our infirm parents (probably something to do with degree of control) but that is not the foremost thing on this film's mind. The metaphors and symbols are heavy handed in a Paul Haggis sort of way as to chop the film off at the knees. It constantly takes the route of diffusing any tension of the situations it itself sets up with a laugh or two rather than seriously looking at the layers of emotional scar tissue that obviously plagues all three of the principles. Ultimately, it is a feel good film about institutionalizing and euthanizing your ailing elder. Happy Black Comedy. Merry Christmas.

      The story opens with a bizarre fusion of the opening slow-mo bowling montage in The Big Lebowski and the ticky-tacky cookie cutter kitsch of the Showtime Network's "Weeds" intro. Instead of choreographed bowling, it is surreal retiree exercises and instead of an upscale Colorado suburb, it is Arizona’s retirement village. All is not well in this pop-up brochure though as Lenny Savage, suffering from middling stages of a form of age onset dementia and the sudden death of his girlfriend, is punted out of ‘paradise’ and into the obligated if unenthusiastic arms of his estranged children.

      Jon and Wendy have little love for their dad for which is intimated, on more than one occasion, that he was a terrible father. Thus his illness and disability are treated more like an obligation than anything else (much like the obligatory and omnipresent “I Love You” balloon in the early act of the film). Jon plays the pragmatist and Wendy the guilt-driven hand-wringer, both are far more involved with their own response to Lennys condition than any sort of empathy (an incident involving a red pillow drives this home with a sledgehammer).

      The script for the film is in vintage Fox Searchlight territory, from the beginnings of the tone of that particular release label with The Full Monty in 1997 all the way up to the recent Little Miss Sunshine and Juno, it has specialized in the upscale quirky dramedy. The often uneasy marriage between laughing at the foibles of the main character and empathizing with them. Meaning no disrespect to director Tamara Jenkins, to see Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor as executive producers says a lot about the relationship that the audience is to have with Jon, Lenny and Wendy Savage. Despite all three being pretty miserable examples of human beings, you empathize with them as you mock their inability to deal with the situation.

      Scenes of Lenny (Philip Bosco, who I’ll always remember as the anal retentive bus-driver from Bill Murray’s Quick Change and is doing a late-career elegiac Murray performance here) being carted on the plane like baggage before losing his pants to expose adult nappies is a vintage Payne moment. The presence of Margo Martindale, the woman who played the lonely tourist with her incredibly bad French voice-over narration in the final and best Paris, Je t’Aime segment, here as gatekeeper to a facility to goes all-in to alleviating the guilt of institutionalizing your parent, seals the deal.

      There may be a niche to fill for this particular baby-boomer (and if I do the math at this point early Gen-Xers) phenomenon where the children become the caregivers of their own parents. If a society is judged by how its members treat their elders, then there is the clue to both the films title and the family name given to the principle characters.

      Some of the best moments in the film involve the mundane bureaucracy of moving Lenny around and securing a spot for him in a nursing home contrasted by white-noise (yet incredibly enthusiastic) television commercials or holiday decorations subtly emphasized throughout. The indignities of both the aged, and those who deal with them are the bulk of the movie (curiously, this is more savagely parodied in Stuart Gordon’s Stuck which goes even further by laying a death-metal soundtrack over things), yet at the heart of the film is the extra pressures to the lower generation whose lives are simply put, a mess of expectations and failed dreams.

      Yet instead of going the harsh route, The Savages constantly feels the need to soften its blows; which was my chief issue with it. Take for example, a lengthy and intensely rendered monologue from Philip Seymour Hoffman regarding the nature of how nursing homes work (the well manicured lawns and Tudor architecture are for the visitors, not the guests, the places stink of death!). The scene is pretty raw and uncomfortable. It gets at the heart of the differences in approach between Jon and Wendy, yet is undercut for a (admittedly effective, but) cheap gag of having another mother and son walk through the frame. Credit again the brilliant performances and low key ending for elevating this material above the common fare, it is a much lesser film than it could have been yet pleasures are certainly had by watching all of these actors humanize a pretty calculated screenplay - both a boon and a curse to have actors this good simultaneously make the thing work and call attention to its flaws.

      (Final Note: The film loses a few more points for sadly cribbing the piano piece from Ghost World in the final moments of the film, and even more offensive, another use of The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Sticking With You” (see also Juno and Lynne Ramsay’s criminally underseen Movern Callar.)

Click "play" to see the trailer:

IMDb profile - full cast and crew
Official Site
Flixster Profile for The Savages