For reasons I can’t quite fathom, Fox Searchlight decided to give Tamara Jenkins’ superb The Savages its national launch at the end of the year, a time crowded with Oscar candidates that are generally big, brash and noisy in their ambitions. The Savages, by contrast, is human-scale, quietly droll and endlessly subtle. It also happens to be one of the very best films of the year, and so deserves to find its rightful audience now that the year-end hoopla has begun to subside.
It’s ironic that one of those big Oscar contenders, P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, evidently impresses some viewers by evoking the expansive ’70s achievements of directors like Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick. To me, The Savages also recalls some of the best cinema of the same storied decade, yet it’s a different tradition, one in which dark comedy mixes with acute perceptions of fraught emotional transitions, a tradition represented by directors like Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude), Milos Forman (Taking Off), Elaine May (The Heartbreak Kid), Jerry Schatzberg (Scarecrow), Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces) and Paul Mazursky (Blume in Love).
Yet The Savages isn’t the least bit retro. In fact, some viewers may find the film almost alarmingly up-to-the-minute due to its subject. It concerns the ordeal faced by a middle-aged brother and sister when they’re obliged to put their father into a nursing home.
If it’s a mark of Jenkins’ daring as a filmmaker that she would tread into such tricky emotional territory in the first place, it’s a mark of her screenplay’s thoroughgoing success that it manages to find humor in that ordeal without sacrificing an honest, trenchant view of the gut-level difficulties it involves.
In a sense, the film is less about boomers dealing with an aged parent than it is about the lifelong relationship of two siblings who are more alike than they would care to admit. Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a Ph.D. in philosophy who teaches “The Theater of Social Unrest” at a university in Buffalo, N.Y., is struggling to finish a book on Bertolt Brecht. Sister Wendy (Laura Linney), whose temp work allows her to send out endless grant applications, is an aspiring playwright possessed of the proverbial tiny Manhattan apartment, cat, and relationship with an older, married man.
Although Jon and Wendy have long been estranged from their footloose father, Lenny (Philip Bosco, who’s excellent), they respond with alacrity when they learn he’s hospitalized with dementia in Arizona. In trying to bring Lenny back east to install him in a nursing home near Jon’s house, they face such trials of “eldercare” as having to discuss funeral arrangements with a parent who is never less than truculent. Yet Wendy and Jon’s greatest challenges are with each other; from the moment they meet at the airport, they start to bicker, in that understated, needling, knowing way that is the unique property of siblings.
Consider this: Not once in Jenkins’ brilliantly turned screenplay do Wendy and Jon discuss their childhood. Yet their whole past history is unmistakably clear as they critique each other’s choicesthe unfulfilled relationships, the thwarted career aspirationsand try to make mutually agreeable decisions concerning Lenny. This is one way of saying that Jenkins avoids obvious narrative moves at every turn; it’s also a tribute to her skill at conveying meaning through dramatic nuance and the fine points of performance.
Those lead performances are not only a tribute to the talents of the versatile Linney and the phenomenal, one-triumph-after-another Hoffman. They also mark Jenkins, who previously made The Slums of Beverly Hills, as one of our most gifted and distinctive young writer-directorsan achievement that I hope won’t escape this year’s Oscar nominators once the hoopla has faded.