Mark Reviews Movies

THE SAVAGES

2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Tamara Jenkins

Cast: Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Bosco, Peter Friedman

MPAA Rating:  (for some sexuality and language)

Running Time: 1:53

Release Date: 11/28/07 (limited); 12/21/07 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik

I keep thinking of that Ebert mantra: "A movie is not what it's about; it's how it's about it." The subject of The Savages, which deals with two siblings determining what to do with their aging, ailing father, is weighty. This will have some people immediately think it's an important movie. Writer/director Tamara Jenkins handles it with a bleak, darkly humorous tone. This will have some people instantly think it's edgy. She populates her script with two smart intellectuals, who hold in their emotions and talk about intelligent things. This will have some people instantly think they're well-developed.

Notice all of these things are still "what" the movie is about, although that stuff about the tone is in part a way "how" it is about its "what." The problem is that while The Savages is in a way a brave movie about a serious topic, it is also predictably unconventional, indulgently metafictional, and hesitant about going for its alluded intentions. Jenkins wants to distance us from but also to sympathize with the characters, their troubles, and the larger scale melancholy at the premise's core. That's when I think of another saying: You can't have it both ways.

The movie opens with the elderly Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) living in Arizona in the home of his girlfriend. Her caretaker wants him to flush the toilet, and he responds by writing an insult in his own feces. Meanwhile in New York City, Lenny's daughter Wendy (Laura Linney) works at a temp job and, instead of doing her work, writes up a proposal to receive grant money from several foundations to fund the writing of her "subversive, semi-autobiographical play" about her troubled childhood. When she returns to her apartment and after having unproductive sex with her married neighbor (Peter Friedman), she gets a message about her father's bathroom graffiti.

She calls her brother Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a college professor of drama, in Buffalo, frantic about their father, and Jon insists they talk about it at a better time than one in the morning. The next day, they're on a plane to Arizona, where Lenny has been kicked out of his now deceased girlfriend's house, and a doctor tells them their father is in suffering from dementia. Jon's immediate thought is to a nursing home, but Wendy isn't convinced it's the right choice.

Wendy and Jon are certainly smart people, but they are far from endearing. Wendy is a pathological liar. After a nurse calls to tell her the results of a test came back with no problems, she tells her lover that the doctors aren't so sure. She later tells her brother she received a grant when she didn't. Jon is mourning the soon-to-be absence of his girlfriend, whose visa has expired, but he's cold about it. He's also nonchalant about his father. Jenkins gives us the sense that these traits are the result of abuse at the hands of their father and absenteeism on the part of their mother.

Such expository hinting explains much (and Jenkins' subtle handling of it is appreciable), but it doesn't make them any less self-pitying, any more appealing. They instead come across as underwritten. Their dialogue is smart to compensate. After Wendy worries that they'll have to go out to the desert to find their father, Jon responds, "We're not in a Sam Shepard play." Theatre is a huge undercurrent here, as Wendy is trying to write a play, and Jon is attempting to pen a book on Bertolt Brecht.

The Brecht connection is appropriate here, as clearly Jenkins is trying to distance us from the material. She also makes sure we realize it's meant to distance us. The Brecht allusions become more than that in a scene in which Jon is lecturing to students about the point of Brecht's drama and hence the point here. It's a self-aware conceit that ends up seeming downright conceited, really. Jenkins script doesn't distance us with artifice, though; it's simply with underwritten, disagreeable characters and an inattention to the emotional crux of their dilemma. That is until, of course, it becomes convenient to pay lip service to it.

When Jenkins separates herself from her conceptualizing, there are some pretty effective scenes that get to the heart of the matter. One has Lenny on an airplane, trying to make it to the restroom, and his pants drop. There's a heartbreaking look of embarrassment on his face (Bosco is quite good here in spite of being nothing more than an inciting incident) as Wendy realizes what has happened. The moments of attempted emotional honesty near the end, then, feel a bit forced, because we've been distanced and told flat-out that distance is the point.

This is a tricky balancing act, and Jenkins doesn't pull it off. The movie has some genuinely, darkly funny moments, and Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman give solid performances, even if their characters aren't the most amiable folks we'd care to follow. The Savages, though, suffers from an identity crisis of tone and concept that undermines both the thoughtfulness and emotional resonance it's attempting.

Copyright 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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