Unless your local DVD store has a realism aisle, watch The Savages in theaters while you can, because otherwise you might have trouble locating this indefinable film. Although one could argue that The Savages is a comedy, it rarely elicits laughter; instead we often sense neurons firing at some premature level that, however amusing, just falls short of the laugh threshold. And the film is no tragedy either, for our protagonists are significantly better off when the film ends than when it began.
The only category that truly fits the film is “real life.” Director Tamara Jenkins is far less concerned with pushing the story forward than with making keen observations about the complexities of dealing with family relationships and middle age. The film’s lack of urgency allows for in-depth character development and delightfully awkward moments, but it also works to challenge the viewer’s continual interest in the plot.
The film revolves around two humorously neurotic middle-aged siblings, Jon and Wendy Savage (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney). They are brought together by the death of their demented father’s longtime girlfriend and must find a new place for him to live out his remaining days.
What’s captivating about this story is the unusual dynamic created by the fact that Jon and Wendy, who have no real affection for their father, are forced to care for a parent who never cared for them. But dealing with their dying father is really just a mechanism to help deal with their own mid-life crises, which Wendy describes as middle-class whining.
Jon, a disheveled drama professor in Buffalo, is struggling with a book on Bertolt Brecht and the fact that his girlfriend must return to Poland because her visa has expired. Wendy is a failed playwright based in New York whose only real relationship is an affair with a married man who swings by, when walking his dog, for a little action. Without much back-story, Jenkins posits Jon and Wendy’s state as being a result of poor parenting. The key question thus becomes: how will dealing with their father improve their lives?
The Savages is writer/director Jenkins’ second feature, a follow-up to the 1998 cult classic Slums of Beverly Hills. Where she best succeeds in her most recent film is in creating (with much help from Hoffman and Linney) three-dimensional characters with whom we can all relate. In fact, we spend so much time getting to know their histories and eccentricities that we are almost forced to identify with some aspect of them.
Also adding to the film’s realism is that there is very little idealization in it. There are no ravishing movie stars, boundless landscapes or epic themes. It is simply a story about two average people, in the unremarkable setting of Buffalo, trying to cope.
One of the most interesting aspects of The Savages is how it portrays the universal issue of dealing with dying loved ones, which seems to parallel dealing with oneself. Perhaps the most emotionally wrenching scene takes place in a diner when Jon and Wendy are forced to ask their father if he wants to be kept alive in the case of a coma and, if not, how he would like to be buried. The film, refreshingly, refrains from providing a commentary on handling death but rather provides one entertaining perspective.
The lack of traditional dramatic structure may be off-putting to a viewer looking for compelling narrative, but where the film really slips is in the last few minutes. Without explanation, it jumps from their father’s inevitable death to a scene six months later that provides a sort of hopeful resolution. The resolution is not the issue; it is the lack of justification for it: there is no recognition, realization or epiphany. There is simply a jump from melancholy to happiness and hope. This probably won’t leave you feeling cheated, just a bit confused.
In general, the film’s merits outweigh its flaws. Both the story and the characters are a welcome diversion from the typical sketches of mainstream cinema, and the performances alone, by Hoffman, Linney and Philip Bosco as the father, justify a viewing. Although you may find yourself checking your watch here and there, you will most likely leave the theater pleased to have entered this bizarre, but perhaps strangely ordinary, world.