Savage siblings

Dark comedy fails to find laughter in dementia

Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney star in The Savages
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Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney star in The Savages

Dementia, unfulfilled potential and emotionally abusive fathers don’t quite scream ‘laugh track’ to most people. The Savages, a dark new “comedy” by writer and director Tamara Jenkins doesn’t quite make the jump from bleak, truthful story to wry, witty statement about life, although it does portray the heartbreak of caring for a dying family member with poignancy and realism.

The plot centers around the Savage siblings, Wendy (Laura Linney) and Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who, like their J.M. Barrie-inspired Darling counterparts, seem to have fought from their childhood all the way into middle age.

When informed their estranged and elderly father, Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco), is suffering from a degenerative brain condition, Wendy, a compulsive liar and failed playwright, and Jon, a commitment-phobic scholar of epic theatre, must confront their demons and each other as they move Lenny from the Stepford-like Sun City into a depressing nursing home.

Navigating between the world of the dying and the world of the barely-living, the unfulfilled and unlikable siblings perpetuate their self-destructive habits, more concerned with their own pathetic problems than their father’s deterioration.

Though the film’s title would suggest an ensemble piece about the Savage family at large, Lenny is merely a catalyst, helping sibling rivalry and squabbling to commence afresh as brother and sister judge, manipulate and somehow bond during the long, fluorescent-lit hours spent at Lenny’s bedside.

At its best, the film is accurate and honest—traits are characterized in a shot depicting Halloween decorations at a nursing home being taken down, only to be immediately replaced by Christmas snowflakes and smiling Santa’s.

At its worst, the film’s a pretentious attempt to capitalize off of the independent movie genre through forced quirkyness and obscure references. Either way, it fails to entertain.

One can’t help but wonder if Wendy and Jon are, as Wendy suggests about her play, just a bunch of middle-class whiners. No reason is ever given as to why Jon is so reluctant to keep his relationship together, or why Wendy displays pathological and kleptomaniacal tendencies.

These intricacies are glossed over via a few brief sentences about absentee parents, and never explained in depth. The audience is left to deal with maladjusted, self-destructive characters who don’t seem to change in any major way, despite the large changes to their lives occuring throughout the film.

Regardless of its far-reaching attempts at setting an “indie movie” atmosphere, the film offers some strong performances. Linney has some lovely moments with orderly Jimmy (Gbenga Akinnagbe), and her refreshingly normal—if slightly unnerving—married boyfriend, Larry (Peter Friedman), while Philip Seymour Hoffman delivers his third great performance of the year, portraying a lonely, privately vulnerable scholar more interested in perfecting his theatre book than his three-year relationship.

The best performance of the film comes from Philip Bosco, who subtly portrays the self-conscious honesty the film tries so ardently—and unsuccessfully—to convey. His embarrassed, quietly confused expression after his adult diaper is exposed when his pants slip as Wendy guides him to a plane bathroom channels the film’s greater intentions—showcasing the fragile vulnerability of human life and human relationships.

Though the cast puts up a valiant effort in their attempts to make this story matter, it’s ultimately the screenplay preventing the viewers’ engagement with the characters and the plot, presenting intrinsically flawed, self-interested family members in an austere, institutionalized setting, and leaving the audience feeling worn down and just as tired as everyone in the film looks.

Snippets of comedy leap out like unexpected reminders of what happiness feels like—after 113 minutes of savage depression, after all, you may have forgotten.

For a film that has persisted in its harsh, unapologetically bleak portrayal of life’s hardships, the ending of The Savages is a sentimental, quasi-uplifting disappointment.

Like its main characters, the film seems to be having an identity crisis: does it want, deep down, to be a feel-good family film? Does it have a broader social message aside from “Aging sucks”? Does anyone really find the deterioration of another human’s body and mind amusing?

Just as familial reconciliation comes too late for Lenny Savage, the “uplifting” ending of the film—and any subsequent message it might carry—falls upon an audience too far gone to care.

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