Savages, The (2007): Tamara Jenkins Second Feature, Starring Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Women in Film)

Sundance Film Fest 2007 (World Premiere)–It has taken the gifted writer-director Tamara Jenkins 10 years to make a second feature, aptly titled The Savages.

Our Grade: B+ (***1/2 out of *****)

Her new film is a multi-nuanced serio-comedy about the fragile relationship between two siblings (splendidly played by Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose identities go through a dramatic transformation upon realizing that their father is dying of dementia.

The Fox Searchlight release, which world premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, was greeted with warm response and huge applause, which speaks well of its theatrical prospects. With the right positioning and savvy marketing, “The Savages” should have a strong crossover appeal way beyond the indie milieu. This movie should also place Jenkins at the forefront of directors who
offer a distinctly female (if not outright feminist) perspective in Hollywood, an industry still vastly underrepresented by women. (It’s rather depressing that the two women with viable careers are Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers, who specialize in fluffy, inconsequential romantic comedies).

Taking a leap forward as writer and director, Jenkins has made a character-driven movie that conveys a realistic yet irreverent look at the processes of aging and dying. Her major achievement is the subtle change of tone–from the serio and tragic to the comic and pathetic– from scene to scene and sometimes within the scene (and even the same phrase).

Named after the characters’ last name, “The Savages” feels like a personal film, though anyone who has gone through giving care to the terminally ill, be they old (as the father in this picture) or young (as a result of AIDS and other causes), should be able to relate to this saga, which is alternately sad and funny.

I have very seldom described films as events that will make you laugh and cry, but “The Savages” is a picture that effortlessly achieves that double effect, often simultaneously. However, the film’s scope is broader than that, and as was evident in her feature debut, “Slums of Beverly Hills,” she has a good, sensitive ear for the way people talk (the dialogue is sharp and cutting) and penchant for capturing the neuroses of misfits-the Jewish intellectual kind.

Narratively, Jenkins works with the classic paradigm of balance, imbalance, and then restoration of balance (or semblance of) on a higher level, which makes the film’s central issues more universal in their implications. Jenkins asks what happens when adult siblings are plucked from their everyday, ordinary, self-centered lives to care for an estranged elderly father.

The last thing the Savage siblings ever wanted to do was look back on their undeniably dysfunctional family legacy. Having wriggled their way out from beneath their fathers domineering thumb, they are now completely cocooned in their own complicated, unhappy, and compromised lives.

Wendy (Laura Linney), a self-medicating struggling East Village playwright, makes a living as a temp. She spends her days applyingand getting rejected–for grants (the prestigious Guggenheim among them) and stealing office supplies. For recreation, if you can call it that, she dates her very married neighbor, who visits her with is ailing dog. Sex has become so routine and boring that during intercourse, Wendy keeps looking at the dog, as if seeking sympathy; in a hilarious moment, she even grabs the dog’s leg during sex.

Wendy’s brother Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is an obsessive-compulsive college professor, writing obscure books on obscure subjects, such as Bertolt Brecht. When he drives, he listens to Lotte Lenya singing Kurt Weill’s “Three Penny Opera.”

Living and teaching in Buffalo, Jon cant commit after four years to his Polish girlfriend, whose visa is about to expire, forcing an end to their tentative relationship. The Polish woman, also an aspiring academic (contemporary theory), does bring some joy to his lifeshe reduces him to tears whenever she cooks eggs for him!

Yet, despite their foibles and frustrations, Wendy and Jon are muddling through. What throws the siblings off their seemingly balanced existence is when, out of the blue, they get a telephone call informing them that the father they have long feared and avoided, Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco, better known for his stage work), has lost his marbles. Reproached by the Latino caretaker for refusing and/or forgetting to flush the toilet, Lenny goes back to the bathroom and writes on the wall with his own feces “Freak.”

One thing leads to another, and Lenny’s old companion, with whom he had shared residency for two decades, passes away and her children put the condo, in the retirement community of Sun City Arizona, up for sale. There is no one to help Lenny but his own kids.

This crisis situation forces Wendy and Jon to put their already arrested lives on hold and live together under one roof for the first time since childhood. From this point on, the tale takes a rather predictable route, with Jon and Wendy recalling their childhood and rediscovering the eccentricities that drove each other crazyand apart.

The plot, narrowly speaking, revolves around the siblings’ efforts to find a nice, comfortable place (if there is such a thing) for their father to die. In these sections, we get an updated view of the status of homes, from the modest and less expensive to the more luxurious places; one montage is done in a surreal style as a musical production number.

But the beauty and strength of the film lie with the sharp, multi-nuanced characterization that Jenkins the writer has created. (At this phase, Jenkins is still more accomplished as a scripter than as helmer). We have seen several features about aging and dying (the schmaltzy Oscar-winning “On Golden Pond” with Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda) and many more TV films, but not one that really cuts to the bone and depicts dementia in all its painful and graphic details, though without ever losing the humorous aspects of them. Nonjudgmental, Jenkins lets Lenny be angry and explode both in private and in public.

The center of the text is occupied by the two siblings, who have never known each other until the new, undesirable state of disequilibrium in their lives. For some reason, American features have avoided the topic of adult (if not emotionally mature) siblings; most films are about kids or adolescents. If memory serves, the last film about a relationship between a brother and sister happens to be a Laura Linney feature too, the superb indie “You Can Count on Me,” which premiered at the 2000 Sundance Festival and co-won the Jury Award for Best Drama (with “Girlfight”) and Screenplay. In that picture, Linney also gave a shining performance, one that benefited from the support of the then newcomer Mark Ruffalo.

It’s safe to say that, at this juncture of her career, Linney is one of the most brilliant actresses working today, committed for the most part to indie films. Her work in “The Savages” bears slight resemblance to her role in Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale” (shown at Sundance in 2004), also a personal family drama.

In Jenkins’ picture, Philip Seymour Hoffman (who won the Best Actor Oscar for “Capote” last year) offers the same quality of partnership that Ruffalo gave in “You Can Count on Me.” Linney and Hoffman capture in minutia detail the initial upheaval, the sibling rivalry battle over how to handle their fathers final days, and ultimately, the more honest camaraderie that follows as a consequence of the various crises they go through, from facing the past to dealing with their father’s death and its aftermath.

Ending on an extremely satisfying note, “The Savages” shows how two immature siblings finally begin to realize what adulthood, family and, most surprisingly, each other are really about. In this respect, Jenkins’ movie is a quintessential coming-of-age picture, except that the protagonists are not youngster but middle-aged.

The talented Jim Taylor (who’s married to Jenkins) and his writing partner Alexander Payne are credited as producers, along with vet indie producer Ted Hope. Though I can only surmise what Taylor-Payne individual and joint contribution was to Jenkins’ feature, let’s say that in its good, funny, and touching moments, which are plentiful, “The Savages” displays the same humanism and generosity of spirit evident in Payne’s best work, such “About Schmidt” and “Sideways.”

Indeed, over the course of the yarn, Linney’s Wendy and Hoffman’s Jon transform from selfish misfits to mature individuals who are in closer, more realistic touch with their feelings and identities–without losing their eccentricities and idiosyncrasies.

Cast

Wendy Savage – Laura Linney
Jon Savage – Philip Seymour Hoffman
Lenny Savage – Philip Bosco
Larry – Peter Friedman
Jimmy – Gbenga Akinnagbe

Credits

A Fox Searchlight release presented in association with Lone Star Film Group of a This is that production in association with Ad Hominem Enterprises and Cooper’s Town Prods.
Produced by Ted Hope, Anne Carey, Erica Westheimer.
Executive producers, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor, Jim Burke, Anthony Bregman, Fred Westheimer.
Directed, written by Tamara Jenkins.
Camera: Mott Hupfel.
Editor: Brian A. Kates.
Music: Stephen Trask.
Production designer: Jane Ann Stewart.
Cstume designer: David Robinson.
Sound: Matthew Price.

Running time: 112 Minutes.