The Chicago International Film Festival wrapped up last week and the film that closed out the final night was Tamara Jenkins’ first feature-length film in roughly nine years, The Savages. Some may remember that Jenkins first got acclaim with her last film The Slums of Beverly Hills in 1998. The Savages could not be a more different movie-but they are both fantastic.
Jon (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy (Laura Linney) Savage are siblings who are brought together by a single event: their father Lenny’s (Philip Bosco) girlfriend, with whom he lived in a sunny retirement community, has just passed away and he has begun showing signs of dementia. But since the two had a casual pre-nup (without the “nup”) he is not able to stay in the Sun City home she left behind. So drama professor Jon and struggling playwright Wendy take their father back to Buffalo and begin shopping retirement homes and arguing over what they believe is best (affordable) situation for their father.
The writing and the performances are what you come to see here, and they are a beauty to behold. Linney and Hoffman have both been better and have both played these same, cynical types enough that they’re basically running on auto-pilot. For any other set of actors that would be a put-down, but these two are so damn engaging and watchable that it works for them. Hoffman is a blunt realist who has a sweet side and Linney is a down-on-her-luck temp whose only real relationships consist of that with her cat, with her ficus, and with her boyfriend who also happens to be a reasonably happily married man. The way these two react to each other on screen is definitely in line with the more realistic sibling relationships put to film. As my date pointed out, they do a great job of balancing each other’s quirks and shortcomings, and they each have a very specific type of relationship with their father. Jon is short-tempered and hesitant with his father whereas Wendy is always seeking his approval and making sure he notices her. What’s really great about this is that we’re not beat over the head with how these relationships came to be, but we get a sense that there’s a lot of history between these three and not a lot of it is good.
That brings me to Philip Bosco as Lenny Savage. Bosco has always been a bit player and always pops up in 80’s comedies shown on USA (Three Men and a Baby, The Money Pit) or re-runs of “Law and Order” and more recently seen on Glenn Close’s “Damages” on FX. As a man with dementia, slowly realizing what the rest of his life is going to be like, Bosco is outstanding. He doesn’t go through the “dying man” motions as we’ve seen several times over. He doesn’t go out of his way to make amends with his children and he’s not some kooky old man who wants to take the world by storm one more time before he croaks like in so many movies we’ve seen. He’s a man slowly coming to grips with the fact that he will die and just wants to be left the hell alone for the most part. It’s Bosco’s performance and the way Linney and Hoffman struggle to interact with him that is the heart of the movie.
Tamara Jenkins has crafted a modern-day masterpiece as far as screenplays are concerned. Every scene is layered with character detail and she really takes her time telling this simple story. I’ve read some reviews online stating that this is a slow film, and don’t get me wrong, it IS a slow film. But that’s what death is like, especially when you are expecting it: nothing happens quickly and you try to find the moments that fill you with happiness and try to make them last. Last night after the film, Jenkins and Laura Linney came out for a Q & A session and Jenkins revealed that, although the film is not auto-biographical, both her father and (I believe) grandmother died of dementia. She obviously has experience with the subject matter and writes with great compassion and a sense of realism you would only know if someone close to you had suffered a long death. Waiting for death is a harrowing experience, even though it makes living life more bearable in the meantime.
The Savages is a sincere and direct look at death and the impact it has on those around it. It’s also the most original, funny, and heart-breaking fictional film I’ve seen all year.
Release Date: November 28, 2007 (limited)
Rated: R for some sexuality and language.
Running Time: 113 minutes
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laura Linney, Philip Bosco
Director: Tamara Jenkins
Screenplay: Tamara Jenkins
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Official Website: FoxSearchlight.com