Movie review by Greg Carlson
Tamara Jenkins, whose overrated semi-autobiographical debut feature “Slums of Beverly Hills” managed to wring some humor out of desperate living, attempts more of the same with “The Savages,” a blackly comic movie of the week with most of the melodrama and sentimentality left on the cutting room floor. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and what remains might please moviegoers interested in emotionally conflicted, adult children faced with the challenge of caring for an aging parent who can no longer care for himself. No director could ask for better performers than Laura Linney (Academy Award-nominated for her role) and Philip Seymour Hoffman, but Jenkins saddles them with a script (also Academy Award-nominated) that spins its wheels for an unnecessarily long running time.
Linney and Hoffman play Wendy and Jon Savage, siblings who find themselves quickly at odds over how best to address the needs of their nearly estranged father, now on a slippery slope into dementia. Following the death of his longtime companion, Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) can no longer live in the home they shared, and the Savage children wrestle with the decision to place him in a nursing home. Despite expository hints that Leonard left much to be desired as a father, Wendy finds herself tormented by guilt even as Jon proceeds swiftly, and with conviction, to find an elder care facility that will accept the old man.
Jenkins possesses an eye and an ear for all kinds of familiar, everyday details inherent in a brother-sister relationship, and “The Savages” succeeds as a rare examination of something that many would argue is one of life’s most emotionally draining trials. Additionally, we are also witness to the broken dreams and unfulfilled potential of the Savage kids, who aspire to careers in theater (she as a dramatist, he as a Brecht scholar). Reduced to temping, stealing office supplies, and applying for multiple grants, Wendy’s shortcomings are compounded further by a dead-end affair with a married man.
The depressing milieu of “The Savages” virtually challenges viewers to stick with the movie, and by the halfway point, some people will be checking their watches and eyeing the exits. Because the film is deliberately character driven, many of the middle scenes come across as inert, or as prelude to something more important that never happens. When Jenkins offers glimpses of vintage fare like “The Jazz Singer” and “Night and the City,” classic movie fans will want the camera to linger on the clips to alleviate some of the tedium.
Linney and Hoffman are two of the current cinema’s finest actors, and both bring vulnerability and humanness to their roles. Jenkins has named the pair after two of J.M. Barrie’s most famous characters, and by replacing the adjectival surname Darling with Savage, makes transparent her dramatic intentions. In one scene, a young actor escapes his abusive tormentor by means of the kind of flying harness that would be used in a stage production of “Peter Pan.” In “The Savages,” Barrie’s popular theme is inverted as Jon and Wendy are forced to grow up, whether or not they are ready, willing or able.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/4/08.