Appellate Judge Tom Becker is a savage, but in a gentle, friendly way.
"Dear Selection Committee,
If awarded your prestigious fellowship for artistic creation, I would use the money to complete the writing and research of my new, subversive, semi-autobiographical play about my childhood, entitled, Wake Me When It's Over. Inspired by the work of Jean Genet, the cartoons of Lynda Barry, and the family dramas of Eugene O'Neill, Wake Me When It's Over tells the story of a brother and sister who, after being abandoned by their abusive father, are forced to fend for themselves when their depressive mother goes out on a date from which she never returns."
-- Wendy Savage's proposal to the Guggenheim Foundation
"We're doing the right thing, Wen. We're taking better care of the old
man than he ever did of us."
Facts of the Case
Wendy Savage (Laura Linney, Kinsey) has a marginalized New York City life. Nearing 40, she's a temp worker and wannabe playwright who lives in a small apartment with her cat and is having a passionless, perfunctory affair with a married man. Her older brother, Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead), a theater professor in Buffalo and an expert on Bertold Brecht, is forever researching a long-time-coming book about the writer and ending a long-time relationship because his Polish girlfriend's visa is expiring, and he's still not ready to marry her. The siblings are not estranged, exactly, but there's the sense that they just don't see much of each other.
One night, Wendy gets a call informing her that their father, Lenny (Philip Bosco, Working Girl), has been having bizarre episodes. The elderly Lenny has been living in Arizona for the past 20 years with his girlfriend and hasn't had a lot of contact with his children, which seems to suit everyone just fine. Then the girlfriend up and dies and Lenny is hospitalized with dementia.
Jon and Wendy bring Lenny to Buffalo and install him in a nursing home. Jon seems OK with this arrangement, but Wendy—who stays in Buffalo because she has no real reason to hurry back to New York—just can't seem to get her head around it.
Writer/Director Tamara Jenkins' The Savages is a dead-on look at dysfunction that eschews the quirkiness often found in such stories. It's a very funny film, and at times very sad, but it doesn't rely on contrivance to elicit a response. The writing and acting are so honest and unself-conscious that at times this almost seems like a documentary, one that's subjects didn't know they were being filmed. The handheld camerawork and unobtrusive direction add to this feeling of realism.
The plot is rife with possibilities for poignancy and sentiment: a man at the end of his life losing his independence, children dealing with a parent's illness, dementia, estranged family members forming an uneasy bond. Jenkins never goes the warm and fuzzy route. These are everyday tragedies; in the "real world," there are no prizes for dealing with what life tosses at you, and more often than not, there are no great revelatory moments. Jenkins knows this, and she doesn't burden her story and characters with sweeping emotional transformations or artificial moments of discovery or selflessness. Lenny was apparently a rotten father, and he's not here now to make amends. Jon and Wendy are emotionally stunted, but they're doing the right thing, because that's what people do. We don't learn about them through long, expository speeches, but through their actions and interactions.
Of the Savage siblings, Wendy is far more prone to drama than her pragmatic and closed-off brother. She fashions lies to make her life seem more interesting and tries to create a world as she thinks it should be, rather than how it is. Although her relationship with her father was virtually non-existent before his illness, she is now duty-bound to honor him—at least, her version of honor, which seems based more on what she's read and seen on television than any organic feelings.
Jon wants to do the right thing, but he recognizes the limitations of good intentions. Lenny is losing his mind and dying, and Wendy's dogged insistence that they try to shoehorn him into an assisted-living facility—for which he's clearly not eligible—is grating on her brother, who often sets her straight in no uncertain terms.
Jenkins' writing is a marvel, keenly observed and unsparingly real. The humor sneaks up on you. It's cynical and biting, but never bitter. Her Savages are neither heroes nor villains; they're flawed, self-absorbed, and a not a little clueless. They are also expertly drawn and highly recognizable, and the comedy comes not from anything they do that's outrageous but from their ordinariness. You might or might not recognize a little bit of yourself in these people, but it's a good bet you'll see someone here you know.
Linney, Hoffman, and Bosco give outstanding performances, naturalistic, perceptive, and seemingly effortless. There are no "actor touches" here, no grandstanding or attempts to pretty up the characterizations. The three play off each other beautifully. A scene near mid-point, where children and father go to a diner to discuss Lenny's advance directives, is a pitch-perfect showcase of dark comedy.
Since Fox provided DVD Verdict with a screener, it's tough to judge how the technical elements will look and sound on the final disc. Here, the audio is fine—dialogue and Stephen Trask's lovely and subtle score come through nicely. The video is somewhat less so, with a few of the shots that look grainy. Overall, it seems to be a decent rendering of a film that wasn't "tech-heavy" to begin with.
The only extra of note is a 20-minute "making of" featurette, "About the Savages," which features input from Jenkins, Linney, Hoffman, Bosco, and the producers. It's fairly comprehensive, and all the participants are allowed to offer insights on the production. The lack of a commentary didn't really bother me; the film speaks for itself, and I don't think that the usual commentary track observations ("Here we were trying to show…" or "This was a fun location!") would have added much. Rounding out the set are some extended scenes, a stills gallery shot by Jenkins, and trailers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Savages is a chilly film, and while Jon, Wendy, and Lenny are not unsympathetic, spending almost two hours with them can be a little tough. Their pedigree is closer to the New York neurotics Woody Allen so famously portrayed a couple of decades ago (only without the snappy one-liners) than to the heartwarmingly off-kilter Hoover family of Little Miss Sunshine. If you're looking for light comedy or a tidy inspirational message, this probably isn't for you.
The Savages played at festivals (Sundance, Toronto) and got a limited theatrical release late in 2007. It competed for an audience with award-seeking major studio releases and holiday blockbusters. It never stood a chance.
Hopefully, Fox's DVD release will bring The Savages the audience it deserves.
The Savages are guilty of emotional instability, commitment phobia, and general neuroses.
The Savages is guilty of being one of the most trenchantly funny and insightful films in years.
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Scales of Justice
• "About the Savages"
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