Watching The Savages is a little like asking a friend how things are going and they proceed to tell you—-and none of the news is good, and you learn it all in every miserable detail. The film is written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, who last was in theaters with The Slums of Beverly Hills, which was also about a screwed up family but at least that one had some sense of joie de vivre. This film is like a migraine.
Ostensibly the story of a brother and sister, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, who must deal with their father who has slipped into dementia, The Savages presents two of the more pathetic characters I’ve seen in quite a while. Both of them are involved in theater–he is a professor of drama who specializes in Brecht, she is an aspiring playwright who temps to earn a living. His girlfriend must go back to Poland because her visa is expiring, she is sleeping with a married man.
Their father, played by Philip Bosco, apparen’t wasn’t much of a parent, as Hoffman says at one point, “we are doing more for him than he ever did for us,” in rationalizing putting him into a utilitarian nursing home in Buffalo. Linney feels guilty, and hopes to put him in a classier place. Meanwhile the two forlornly try to go about their lives while coping with a disabled parent, and I think the experience of watching is about as much fun as going through that horrible situation would be.
There is some caustic humor occasionally, and the acting by Hoffman and Linney are first rate. But Jenkins really heaps it on her characters. We know Hoffman is a schlub, but do we really need to see him injure himself and require a neck brace? Linney’s character is even more of a mess, if that’s possible. I did like a friendship she made with an orderly at the nursing home, and I smiled to myself in the opening scenes, when she uses her temp job as her own personal office, mailing out fellowship applications and helping herself to Post-It notes. But mostly I didn’t care for this woman at all, and despite a coda that suggests she turned things around, it wasn’t enough for me.
The issue of caring for elderly parents is certainly one that many can or will be able to relate to, but I didn’t feel this film said anything interesting or profound about it, and wasn’t funny or brutal enough to make it entertaining. At one point Linney asks someone who has read her play, “You didn’t think it was middle-class whining?” which was a dangerous line to put in this film.