Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages was the opening night film for the 2007 Asheville Film Festival, where I first saw it. I found it then a worthy film that embodied both the best and the worst of the American indie scene, but one that overcame most of its flaws by virtue of the three central performances and Jenkins’ often penetrating screenplay. Hell, it even survived the post-screening dissection party. (Anyone who knows me knows I truly hate weighing in on a movie of any merit the minute the lights go up. A thing of substance needs a certain amount of time to digest.)
However, I don’t think I fully appreciated the full worth of this often bitterly funny movie about dealing with a faltering parent and impending death until I saw the gilded phoniness of Rob Reiner’s The Bucket List (2007). Whatever Jenkins’ failings—and there are a few—she doesn’t flinch at portraying the ugliness and pain of her chosen subject, nor does she balk at the well-intended but often clumsy efforts of those surrounding the person in question. And yet somehow her film is ultimately less depressing than the lump-in-the-throat, feel-good machinations of a picture like The Bucket List—for the simple reason that it offers glimpses of true humanity.
The Savages of the title are Wendy (Laura Linney) and Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and their estranged father, Lenny (Philip Bosco, Hitch). They’ve been contentedly out of each other’s lives for years, with Wendy trying to be a playwright in New York (her specialty seems to be applying for grants), Jon plugging away as a professor who writes about theater in Buffalo, and Lenny off in Sun City, Ariz. with girlfriend Doris (Rosemary Murphy). The problem is that Lenny is becoming harder and harder to deal with, something that finds its full expression when he takes to getting back at a nurse by writing a crude name for the fellow on the bathroom wall in his own excrement. The siblings fly out to try to set the situation to rights, only to have things bottom out when Doris dies and it’s revealed that the house and all the assets are in her name—and her heirs have no desire to deal with Lenny.
The story then follows the efforts of Wendy and Jon to do the best they can for their father, despite the fact that not only are they not close to him, they’re both emotionally scarred by the childhood they spent with the man. And Lenny is hardly more likeable in his current state. For that matter, neither Wendy nor Jon can be said to have their lives together. Wendy is involved in an affair with a married man in her apartment building, while Jon is in an odd relationship with a Polish woman whose visa is running out, but whom he won’t save from deportation by marriage. In essence, you have two damaged people trying to do the best they can for a generally unlikable man for no other reason than that he’s their father—which is painfully real for more than a few people no doubt.
This probably gives the impression that The Savages is a downer, but it really isn’t. It’s a film laced with humor—not all of it pleasant—and a sense of basic goodness in its characters and even many of the people around them. There’s a pleasing sense of the growing relationship between brother and sister, and even of their understanding of their father. It errs on occasion—there’s an especially unnecessary, unbelievable and stupidly conceived outburst of “liberal white guilt” involving a nursing-home screening of The Jazz Singer (1927)—but more often than not, it’s a film that rings true and has much to offer. Rated R for some sexuality and language.