December 16, 2007

MOVIES: The Savages (Tamara Jenkins, 2007)

This movie has some of the most misleading advertising and trailers in recent memory. From the ads, you go in expecting a dark comedy about lovably grumpy relatives -- something in the Wes Anderson school, perhaps -- and what you get instead is a rather bleak drama about unhappy people and the indignities of aging in America.

Jon and Wendy Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) have not been in close contact with their father for many years, and both had quietly been hoping that he would simply leave their lives by dying peacefully. No such luck, though; Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) has begun slipping into dementia after the death of his longtime girlfriend, and Jon and Wendy are forced to bring him home from Arizona to New York and find an institution in which he can live out his life.

Lenny was -- at least as Jon and Wendy tell the stories to one another -- an abusive father, and they've responded to their childhood very differently. Jon tries to avoid any emotional engagement; his Polish girlfriend is about to leave the country (her visa has expired), and he refuses to try to help her, or even to acknowledge that he will miss her. Wendy has managed to convince herself that she's reasonably happy, mostly by keeping herself busy with temp jobs, unfulfilling affairs, and endless grant applications in support of the "subversive, autobiographical" plays she wants to write.

It's also clear, though, that as terrible a parent as Lenny may have been, Jon and Wendy have been no great shakes as children, either. They are cruel to their father, regarding his presence as an intrusive nuisance; they argue about him as if he weren't in the room.

Linney, Hoffman, and Bosco are three marvelous actors, and the performances here are first-rate. There are some sharp moments in Jenkins' screenplay, and great care has been taken with the physical details of the characters' homes and of the assorted hospitals and institutions (all of which look depressingly the same). I very much liked the fact that the details of Lenny's abuse are never spelled out, and it is, in fact, entirely possible that Jon and Wendy are simply exaggerating the worst aspects of a perfectly normal childhood. They are, after all, both obsessed with drama, figuratively and literally; she's a would-be playwright, and he's a theater professor, specializing in Brecht.

But there's also an unpleasant condescension towards the older characters in the movie, especially in the opening Sun City sequence; the opening credits play out as a group of elderly women in pseudo-Rockette costumes dance to a creepy Peggy Lee recording of "I Don't Want to Play in Your Yard," which sexualizes them in a grotesquely inappropriate fashion and infantilizes them at the same time.

The ending suggests that Jon and Wendy are moving on with their lives, finally escaping the need to wallow in their childhood trauma, but that optimism didn't feel earned to me; I hadn't seen any sign that either of them had learned anything or changed in any significant way.

The Savages isn't a completely satisfying movie, but the three central performances are strong enough that I think it's worth seeing.

No comments: