The Savages

A Family drama/comedy

  • Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins

In Slums of Beverly Hills, Tamara Jenkins explored adolescence and the beginning of adult responsibility. In her new film, The Savages, she explores its end. More specifically, The Savages concerns itself with two siblings in early middle-age confronting that very difficult moment in life when a parent becomes a burden.

But the burden of a father with dementia hangs particularly heavy on Wendy Savage (Laura Linney) and her brother Jon (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). They don’t really care for their Dad. Nor, for that matter, are they particularly close to each other.

Writer-director Jenkins doesn’t tell us much about Wendy and Jon’s childhood, but she gives us enough clues to let us know that their upbringing wasn’t a happy one. Mom is still alive somewhere, but no one even suggests that they contact her. There are hints of physical (but not sexual) abuse in the past. As they deal with the guilt of putting their father in a home, they comfort themselves with the thought that they’re doing more for him than he ever did for them.

Clearly these are damaged souls, and Wendy is by far the most damaged. A struggling playwright taking temp office jobs to get by, she appears to have no friends. Her only human contact is a loveless affair with a married neighbor.

By comparison, drama teacher Jon is doing quite well. He’s got a good education, a good job, and an actual publisher waiting for his book on Bertolt Brecht. On the other hand, he’s not marrying his long-time Polish girlfriend, despite that being the only way to save her from deportation.

It hardly seems worth mentioning that Linney and Hoffman both turn in wonderful performances. They’ve taught us to expect that from them, and Jenkins’ script gives them plenty to sink their teeth into. But equally wonderful is Philip Bosco as their demented father. Bosco plays him as excitable, confused, frequently angry, occasionally lucid, and never, ever lovable.

Jenkins underplays the symbolism as deftly as she avoids the sentimentality. Despite the family name that gives the film its title, these characters are all bending over backwards to be civilized (except, of course, the father, who is no longer capable of civilized behavior). When Wendy worries that her play is middle-class self-indulgence, Jenkins doesn’t make it obvious that such worries must have confronted her as she wrote the screenplay.

This is only Jenkins’ second feature, and her first in nine years. It’s tempting to suspect that both films are autobiographical (the single father in Slums of Beverly Hills could believably have aged into the elder Savage). But then, The Savages covers territory that we all have to cope with at some point in our lives.