Writer/director Tamara Jenkins made a big splash in 1998 with her debut film, Slums of Beverly Hills. Sharp, funny, and acerbic, the movie was an indie sensation and it put Jenkins on the map. Then she disappeared from filmmaking for almost a decade, focusing instead on writing, acting, and even directing public service announcements. For her return to the world of features, she again taps into personal history for The Savages, another sharp, funny, and acerbic story about the pain of having to put a parent in a nursing home. Movies that are as truthful and observant as this one are rare, so let’s hope Jenkins doesn’t wait another nine years between projects.
Laura Linney plays Wendy Savage and Phillip Seymour Hoffman is her older brother Jon. Wendy is a struggling playwright who earns a living through a temp agency and carries on a pointless affair with a married man. Jon is a professor struggling to meet a deadline for a book. The two are not close, and we can see early on that creative competitiveness is at least partly to blame.
The siblings get a call about their long-estranged father Lenny (Phillip Bosco), who lives with his girlfriend in Sun City, Arizona. Lenny’s been losing his memory and doing things to irritate the home health care worker assigned to him. Wendy and Jon make the decision to put Lenny in a nursing home, but it immediately causes a rift between them. Wendy feels guilty and tries to compensate by looking for a ritzy rehabilitation center; Jon, meanwhile, still feels much resentment toward his dad and wants to go with what’s easiest which, in this case, is a run-down nursing home near his Buffalo home. The disagreements build as brother and sister try to decide what kind of care their father needs and how best to see that he gets it.
That’s about all there is to the plot of The Savages, but then again, this movie is more about details than plot anyway. Jenkins takes the characters through a situation many viewers have been through before: the denial that a parent is that sick, guilt over having to place them in a nursing home, growing fear as the condition gets worse, etc. No doubt people who have been through this process with a parent or grandparent will find a lot to identify with here, whereas others may feel somewhat freaked out knowing that they may face such a scenario someday.
The film is dead-on accurate in its depiction of the little details that accompany the situation. Consider the scene where Wendy and Jon arrive in Arizona and find their father – whom they have not seen in a long time – lying semi-unconscious in a hospital bed. It’s a sad moment for them, broken only by an Oxy-Clean commercial blasting from the TV set in the background. If you’ve ever been in a nursing home, you know that the constant drone of a television often underscores some pretty sad sights and painful emotions. Also notice the way Wendy peeks in some of the rooms as they walk down the corridor, seeing only the feet of elderly residents, as they lay motionless and unstimulated in their beds. This attention to detail gives The Savages a ring of truth because we understand more deeply how difficult the process is for the characters. Rather than just feeling like a movie, it all seems more personal.
The course of their journey causes both Jon and Wendy to evaluate their lives. They can no longer look at their father, each other, or themselves the same way. Laura Linney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are two of our finest actors, and they are both outstanding here, giving award-caliber work. Linney, in particular, is deserving of Oscar consideration for the way she accurately conveys all of Wendy’s mixed emotions and guilt. Good, too, is Phillip Bosco, who doesn’t have a lot to say but effectively portrays a senile old man without ever devolving into caricature.
If it sounds pretty grim and depressing, let me assure you that The Savages is incredibly entertaining. First, when you have an A-list cast acting out such a perceptive screenplay, you can’t go wrong. But just as important is that Tamara Jenkins inserts lots of humor to temper the seriousness of the subject matter. There are many darkly funny scenes here, the best of which is a disastrous attempt by Jon to hold a “movie night” for the nursing home residents. There’s an old saying about how you need to find humor in the darkest moments in order to cope with them. For all their fighting and their flaws, Wendy and Jon Savage generate enough humor to ease themselves – and us – through the process.
The story takes turns you don’t expect and ends on a surprisingly hopeful note. Underneath is all is a fascinating suggestion: no matter how close or distant we may be from our parents, they still have profound meaning in our lives, and the idea that they are not the immortal figures we imagine them to be is hard to face. In the final days or weeks of a parent’s life, it’s easy to look back with remorse or regret, to think of the things unsaid or undone. That kind of thing fundamentally changes you. The Savages understands that implicitly, and it’s touching to see how Wendy and Jon are changed by the experience.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Savages is rated R for some sexuality and language. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.
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