Thursday, February 14, 2008

Life Among the Savages

"Pity is not natural to man. Children and savages are always cruel." -- Dr. Samuel Johnson, as quoted in James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson

The Savages (d. Tamara Jenkins)

The Savages are not a close family. Son John lives in Buffalo where he teaches esoteric art theory. Daughter Wendy is in New York City working as a temp while she tries to sell "subversive semi-autobiographical" plays. Their mother disappeared years ago and their father is living with his girlfriend in Sun City, Arizona. When he begins to suffer from dementia, his children are called west to help care for a father who never much cared for them.

That's the unlikely set-up for Tamara Jenkins's warm, surprising comedy, The Savages. Despite (or perhaps, because of) the seriousness of the situation, Jenkins's clever script finds dark humor throughout. Wendy's play about her childhood is entitled "Wake Me When It's Over," for example. And when the father, Lenny -- played with appropriate vacant grouchiness by veteran Philip Bosco -- first experiences his dementia, he lashes out by smearing a vulgar insult on the wall with his own excrement.

Lenny's dementia inconveniently coincides with the death of his elderly girlfriend, who owned their Sun City home, so John and Wendy must find new assisted-living accomodations for him quickly. Wendy aspires to place Lenny in an upscale assisted-living facility, but John is more practical. "It's a nursing home, Wendy," he tells her, "They all smell."

As the two scramble about to take care of their father and continue to juggle their own personal lives, they have an opportunity to reconnect with each other for the first time in a long time. Both John and Wendy have pursued lives in the arts and academia and they bond in the face of this decidedly practical predicament.

As John, Philip Seymour Hoffman delivers yet another note-perfect performance. John has his own problems, including professional underachieving and a girlfriend who's on the verge of being deported. He treats the crisis with his father as one more thing that has to be handled. Hoffman never lets the character fall into the obvious traps of dotty professorhood or bitter child. He might be an academic, but he is also an efficient, capable man.

Laura Linney's turn as Wendy is equal to Hoffman's work. Wendy is a little more flustered by the situation than John, at least on the surface. She spots the pattern in her commitment-phobic family -- she herself is the other woman in an adulterous affair -- and tries to make up for it by throwing herself into the efforts to place Lenny in the "nice" assisted-living center. Linney finds the warmth in a character who, like John, could have been nothing but sad resentment. Her recent Academy Award nomination is well deserved.

Writer/director Tamara Jenkins shoots her witty script crisply, making inventive use of both the bright desert in Arizona and the slate-grey Buffalo winter. Her previous film, Slums of Beverly Hills, was also smart about darkly funny subjects. That movie made an unfortunate misstep near the end that nearly torpedoed the whole thing. In The Savages when a similar situation presents itself, Jenkins wisely defuses it. She has grown as a filmmaker and I hope it doesn't take another ten years for her to make her next movie.

Ultimately, a kind of closeness is achieved, but not the touchy-feely, let's-all-hug closeness of so many lesser films. Lenny's children are, in the end, just a little too savage for that.

3 1/2 stars

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