A Pair of Aces
Hoffman and Linney's subtle dynamic carries otherwise mediocre film
Director/Writer: Tamara Jenkins
Cinematographer: W. Mott Hupfel III
Starring: Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Bosco
Studio/Run Time: Fox Searchlight, 113 mins.
Oddly being marketed as a comedy by its distributor, The Savages is best approached as a drama with an intermittently light touch that’s generally more of a curse than a boon. Adult siblings Wendy and Jon Savage (Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman) discover that their estranged father, Lenny, has lost his home when his girlfriend of 20 years dies, something that might not register as an emergency if it weren’t for the old man’s increasing dementia, so they rush—Wendy from New York City and Jon from Buffalo—to their father’s side in Sun City, Ariz., resigned to do their bit to help him settle so they can resume their lives.
Writer/director Tamara Jenkins doesn’t fill in the entire back story, but it’s clear that Lenny was an absent father, emotionally if not physically, so his new incoherence— he barely knows who his children are—feels to Wendy and Jon like a cruel parody of something all too familiar.
Although the central conflict seems at first to be between a parent and his grown children, the far more interesting relationship is between Wendy and Jon. In one sense, they’re opposites. Wendy is flighty and hysterical where Jon is calm and aloof. In their love lives, she’s clinging to a relationship with no future, and he’s letting one go with a shrug. About their father, she feels a sense of guilt she can’t quite rationalize, but he experiences only the slightest tug of duty. She wants to find a home that’s not so depressing, but he says, look, they’re all depressing. They’re where people go to die. End of story. When they pay a visit to one home, an employee greets them in the waiting room saying, “You must be the Savages.” Jon hears a capital S, but Wendy, no doubt, hears lower-case.
Although they’re opposites, their passions are closely aligned. She’s a struggling playwright in Manhattan, while he teaches drama and is working on a book about Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright who believed that in order to educate and illuminate, a work of art should keep the audience from becoming too emotionally engaged. Jon takes a similar approach to life.
Casually but carefully, Jenkins has written two characters that play off of each other in subtle ways, and the dynamic is remarkable enough that everything else about the film pales in comparison, the David Lynch-lite montage of Arizona suburbs, the caricature of dementia, and the weird, cutesy mythology of curled toes as a signifier of impending death. Because they seem like trivial reactions to serious situations, these lesser elements drag the film through a dull slog, and they make me wish Jenkins had found another way to bring these two siblings together. For a far more insightful film on what dementia can do to relationships, see Sarah Polley’s feature directorial debut from earlier this year, Away From Her. (Polley had an interest in toes as well, but only because they were an important fragment from her characters’ shared memory. The only history Jenkins conjures is the curled toes of the witch in The Wizard of Oz.)
Part of what makes the sibling relationship in The Savages so interesting is the inspired casting. Linney and Hoffman are fine actors, of course, but they also have temperaments that run parallel to what Jenkins is exploring. Linney has played a variety of roles but seems most believable as this sort of everywoman who’s swept along by the daily tide. Hoffman, on the other hand, takes a more complex, intellectual approach to acting, and despite his girth he can disappear into the emotional hospice nurse of Magnolia, the drag queen of Flawless, the cynical Lester Bangs in Almost Famous and the title role in Capote. He’s also a movie star, someone we like to watch disappear into roles, someone we like to see “act,” someone from whom we have, at those moments, a Brechtian distance, so his appeal has an almost contradictory duality.
Jenkins takes full advantage of the contrast between her actors, and of Hoffman’s duality, to bring these characters together, letting Wendy gain a little distance from her life and letting Jon find—or perhaps just reveal—an emotional connection to his. With small steps, they move closer to each other. It’s an obvious development, I guess, and not all that deep, but it feels sincere and it emits a warmth that’s far more satisfying than whatever is given off by the father’s toes.