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The Savages  


"The Savages" is a film about a certain kind of relationship (brother and sister) and about being a certain age (late thirties/early forties).   It’s also about being a certain type of person, one who finds his or her raison d’etre in the sort of art that has never troubled the radar screens of everyday people—in this case the “theatre of social unrest”—and who is not quite equipped to function in the world run according to everyday criteria.   I related to all that!   In fact, the character of the brother, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, reminded me not only of people I’ve known, but also of people that I’ve on occasion been.   (“It looks like the Unabomber lives here”, comments the sister, played by Laura Linney, when she first espies her brother’s book-strewn quarters).   He’s a disheveled academic teaching Brecht at what appears to be a community college; at 39, she’s still temping at dead-end cube jobs while writing plays on the side.   The story begins when the sibs are suddenly called on to deal with the onset of their estranged father’s Parkinson’s.   The father, played by Philip Bosco, is a product of the New York tenements; he’s sour and miserable and he was a lousy father to boot, crossing the line that separates New York-volatile from negligent rageaholic.   How a man of no sensitivity whatsoever somehow managed to produce kids who grew up to love theatre is one of the life mysteries plumbed by this film.   They must have found something there they needed.      

"The Savages" is an honest picture, nicely mounted by writer/director Tamara Jenkins (“The Slums of Beverly Hills”).   She’s made a tragicomedy for the sort of audience who might “get” a line like, “We’re not in a Sam Shepard play here”.   She has a knack for drawing these theatre and film-loving people: we get the feeling she’s based them at least in part on herself.   And yet, while she’s adept at sidestepping cliché and predictability, much of this film nonetheless has the feel of the familiar about it.   And since there’s no love lost between the sibs and their dad (they hadn’t even seen him for years before he got sick, didn’t even know where he was living), the audience can end up feeling a bit like the Savage kids, not quite sure how to react or what to feel, unsure whether we feel anything at all.   The film doesn’t flinch, which creates a (not uninteresting) dissonance in the context of comedy: surely we’re not meant to laugh when the old man can’t make it to the bathroom on the plane and his pants fall down and he wets himself?

In the future "The Savages" will be a treat discovered by connoisseurs of screen acting in the course of going back to catch everything done by two of the best of our era, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney.   Hoffman, with his deep, intelligent laugh, is absolutely right as the depressed scholar of the Theatre of the Absurd; it’s a case of an actor’s persona melding perfectly with a role to create a memorable performance.   Still, it is Linney as the sister who is really the main character, a neurotic dissembler who’s had a largely disappointing life and seems to feel she’s owed something.   That description makes her sound awful, so it’s a testament to Linney’s acting and Jenkins’ writing that we see the fundamentally decent and empathic person that she is, the compassion she shows towards a father who never showed any.   Towards the end of the film we witness a rehearsal of her semi-autobiographical play which shows her wish to have been able to literally lift her brother away from their father’s rage.   (Similarly, Bosco, while not having much in the way of dialogue beyond stereotypical old man kvetching, still manages to make the father pitiable through his facial expressiveness).    

If you’re like me, you’ll delight in “The Savages” for its many moments that seem to reflect your own life—and be thankful and grateful that many of its moments do not.       

Rating: ****

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)

- Feb 20, 2008  

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