Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Savages

Back in October of 2006, in a review of the stinkbomb Man of the Year, I included the following parenthetical: Does anyone do hard-working-but-lonely better than Laura Linney?

Since then, I've thought of Linney as essentially a one-note actress. She plays her note faithfully, dutifully, competently, but it's just one note. Well, The Savages altered my perception. Linney is still playing essentially the same note, but it sounds so much richer when it's used in just the right song.

The Savages is the story of your average American dysfunctional family, but all grown up. Wendy Savage (Linney) and Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are middle-aged brother and sister, living relatively normal and successful separate lives, when Linney receives a phone call indicating that their father has dementia. The bro-and-sis combo must fly from New York to New Mexico, clear out their father's house (their mother has been out of the picture for some time), find a good nursing home for him, and basically wait for him to die. Sundance's Geoffrey Gilmore calls it a "coming-of-middle-age story," and that's really a good way to think of it.

In that vein, it's more or less a straghtforward drama. There's no big explosions, there's no steamy sex scenes, there's no huge laugh out loud moments (though there are a few mild chuckles). It's really just a pointed look at two people dealing with one of the uncomfortable realities of being adults.

That can be tiresome if it's not well-written and well-acted. Fortunately, The Savages is. Writer/director Tamara Jenkins does excellent work by almost letting you forget she had anything to do. The dialogue isn't particularly snappy, the plot twists aren't particularly brain-twisting, the camera angles aren't particularly experimental. It just feels like you're watching a slightly edited slice of life--an effect that seems much easier to produce than it actually is.

Jenkins has ample help from her cast. Linney particularly shines (she was nominated for an Academy Award)--but, again, not so much because she transcended her estabished acting ability, but because she found a vehicle that made her specialty seem special. In Man of the Year, for example, she's just the cliché of the modern conscientious-but-overwhelmed female dealing with all the demands society puts on her. She's that here, but she's more. In the context of The Savages, something about the roundness of her eyes seems to suggest that she's not just yet-another struggling, working, lonely woman, but that she's really deep down inside still a very vulnerable child who is doing everything she can do keep from being exposed by the never-ending demands of the adult world. With that infintesiminal shift, she becomes much more watchable and much more likable.

Philip Seymour Hoffman's reputation for excellence is well-established, but he, like Linney, has also found a film that suits him perfectly here. He plays the rumpled theater-teaching realist to Linney's put-together playwrighting idealist. Both seem to be struggling with the pressures of adulthood, but she looks like she's trying way too hard and he looks like he's not trying hard enough.

It's also easy to overlook the performance of Philip Bosco, who plays Len, the dying Savage father, and that's sort of the point. Jon and Wendy Savage must deal with the storage and disposal of their father, and as much as they know he's a person, his utter dependence can't help but turn him into a bit of an object. The film lures the audience into this easy-but-erroneous categorization of old-guy-as-baggage, but at two or three points subtly reminds the viewer that Len is still a person, too. The relatively unheralded Bosco does superb work in yielding the spotlight to Linney and Seymour Hoffman but in hitting all the right old, infirm, slightly demented, and human notes that he's asked to hit.

If there's a bone to pick with this movie, is that it's not particularly earth-shattering. It keeps the interest and says something both truthful in relevant, but it's not something that will particularly change the viewer. It's just a simple, well-made film about two people dealing with a difficult task. So it gets an 10. It's not a movie you need to rush out and see, but if you're at the video store and nothing else looks good, this is a perfectly suitable choice.

1 comment:

Moshe Reuveni said...

You've actually managed to make me really watch the film. In my opinion, society in general treats old people like past expiration date consumables; once they've done their part, old people are expected to just sit quietly and rot. They are no longer humans, at least when judging by the way they're treated.
I wonder if that is what the movie's title is hinting at. Anyway, The Savages is going to be one of those DVD's I will be looking to rent now. Thanks.