Estranged siblings are forced to deal with their even more estranged father's descent into age-related dementia in Tamara Jenkins' braceingly unsentimental, bitter(sweet) drama about fractured family values.
Wendy (Laura Linney) and Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are both children of the theater, she just the right side of 40, he just the wrong, and neither an adult in any way except the baldly chronological. She's an unproduced playwright, living in a Manhattan studio apartment and having an affair with a married man (Peter Friedman), hustling for grants and pilfering supplies from the temp jobs that barely pay her rent. He's a professor in Buffalo, New York, writing an endless book about Bertolt Brecht and unable to make a commitment to the Polish academic (Cara Seymour) he's been dating for four years, even as her expired visa is forcing her to return home. They have parents, but they might as well have grown up orphans; their mother decamped when they were children and their bitter, hot-tempered father (Philip Bosco) alternately abused and ignored them. They're both hanging onto the illusion that they have their lives together Until Lenny's longtime lady friend, Doris (the fine theater actress Rosemary Murphy, who embodies the tragedy of slipping quietly away without a single line of dialogue), dies, and Doris' family politely but firmly informs them that their dad is now their responsibility. Everything Lenny and Doris shared -- retirement home in Sun City, Arizona, bank accounts, furniture -- were actually Doris', and the ill-tempered Lenny is now their responsibility. They don't love him and they certainly don't like him, but Jon and Wendy can't bring themselves to abandon him the way he abandoned them -- that would make them "horrible people," Wendy wails. Savages even, she might say, but doesn't, because the icy joke is that for all their self-centeredness and unspoken pride in having raised themselves, they'd give anything to have had parents who loved them. And failing that, they're going to prove they're better than Lenny by doing right by him, regardless of the cost.
Anyone who's navigated the bureaucratic ins and outs of providing for an aging and enfeebled relative will recognize the terrain Jenkins covers with a cooly sympathetic eye, and anyone who hasn't should take note: Death comes to all, but rarely comes with quick and tidy finality. Like Jenkins' equally close-to-home SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS (1998), THE SAVAGES is funny in the if-you-didn't-laugh-you'd-cry way and superbly acted by all involved, including the supporting cast of home-care attendants, nurses, hospital administrators, intake personnel and nursing-home staff. A lesser filmmaker might have cast them as uncaring demons or comic relief, but Jenkins allows them all their patient, compromised humanity. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh