January 10, 2008

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The Savages (R)
A brother and sister deal with their aging father and their own failings in the darkly comic, sharply written The Savages.

Wendy Savage (Laura Linney) is an office temp who spends her at-work days writing grant letters for her unpublished, unproduced plays, misusing the company mail machine to send those letters off and stealing office supplies. In her New York City apartment, she has a cat, a sad ficus plant and occasionally a little nookie with a married neighbor (Peter Friedman) who brings his dog over (apparently walking the dog is his cover). It’s after one such liaison that she finds out that her father, Lenny (Philip Bosco), has been acting out. Later, she learns that his girlfriend, the woman with whom he’d been living, has died and that Lenny has no legal right to stay in the house where they both lived but that she owned. While Wendy dramatically flips out about these developments (and seems to kind of enjoy getting to do so), her brother Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in Buffalo not nearly as interested. Both children had a lousy relationship with their father and neither had seen him in a while (their equally awful mother walked out on them some years ago as well). Jon, reluctantly, and Wendy, fueled by the drama of the situation, travel to Arizona, where they learn that their father has dementia and needs to be put in a nursing home.

For a movie that is bleak and dry but also blackly humorous, you couldn’t ask for better actors than Hoffman and Linney. They are able to perfectly melt into these characters and give us honest pictures of people who are sad, a little embarrassed about all they haven’t accomplished and deeply flawed. Jon’s career is better than Wendy’s but his love life is just as much of a mess. Wendy lies and tells Jon that she’s received a grant to work on her plays but later we learn that the grant was from FEMA and is part of a 9/11 payout. Through it all, they bicker, with the, well, savagery and precision that only siblings can. And in the background, their fading father tunes them out, something, we suspect, that he’s always done.

Aging and death suck and this movie makes no attempt to find a positive spin on losing your faculties and winding up in an institutional setting. But it makes no attempt to hide the negatives or the realities of that situation either. This is life, life is flawed and often quite bleak, the movie says. But there are moments of humor, even when it feels like gallows humor, that keep us moving forward. A

Rated R for some sexuality and language. Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, The Savages is an hour and 53 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Fox Searchlight Pictures.