The Savages (2007)
Starring: Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Bosco, Peter Friedman, Gbenga Akinnagbe, David Zayas, Cara Seymour
Directed by: Tamara Jenkins
Given all the hype that leads up to it, it’s easy to dismiss the Academy Awards and all the lesser award shows that contribute to movie star hype. After all, they usually get it wrong anyway, or fall into predictable traps like always nominating stars who ugg themselves up for a role / play someone with a handicap / play Queen Elizabeth. There’s also the whole notion of awarding prizes for art that seems a little disingenious. But, if the various awards shows and the hype that surrounds them can be applauded for one thing, it’s the attention it sometimes shines on smaller films that wouldn’t otherwise get it. So when I write a review telling everyone to see The Savages, they may pay some attention to it given the Best Actress nomination for star Laura Linney or the Best Original Screenplay nomination for writer/director Tamara Jenkins.
Because you really should see this wonderful film. It has everything you could ask from it, including outstanding performances by Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, a frank, realistic portrayal of dealing with the mental illness of a loved one, and some geniunely funny moments that provide relief from what would otherwise be an emotionally-draining film. I understand that movies about dealing with a parent with dementia don’t often inspire people to spend a night out going to see them (the same impulse kept me away from the similarly great Away from Her), so feel free to add this to your rental queue, as it’s not the sort of movie that demands big screen treatment.
The Savages is a character study of Jon (Hoffman) and Wendy (Linney) Savage, two siblings stuck in a case of arrested development, she a temp with aspirations to be a playwright, he a theatre arts professor unwilling to commit to his long-term girlfriend (Cara Seymour) in order to keep her in the country. They’re forced to confront their complacent, approaching middle-aged lives when their estranged father’s (Philip Bosco) dementia prevents him from living on his own. The two are forced to put him into a home, leading them to confront their own lives while they confront their father’s illness.
The movie falters a bit in the beginning with a title sequence that tries a little too hard for quirk and ends up being too precious. I get that Jenkins was trying to contrast the fantasy element of happier times with the bleak reality that is to follow, but it doesn’t quite work and could lead to some viewers quickly dismissing The Savages as another typical entry into the land of indie quirk (or, conversely, confuse fans of indie quirk into thinking this is right up their alley). Luckily, the movie doesn’t continue to indulge in the sort of arch-fest one might expect from the opening and the film’s trailer, and instead gets down to the business of finding the heart behind these world-weary characters without any histronics or too clever-by-half dialogue.
The credit goes to Jenkins’ wonderful script and the absolutely devastating performances by Hoffman and Linney, two of the absolute best of their generation. It’s a script with some geniune humour, which might confuse some into thinking they’re watching a black comedy instead of the adult drama that it is. But the humour comes from a real place that a lot of dealing-with-disease movies ignore, that as humans we often face tragedy with laughter as a coping mechanism, and that life often will throw you curves even in the face of tragedy that you can’t help but laugh at. Of course, there were times in the movie when I couldn’t laugh, despite the absurdism, because I’d been drawn too deeply into the lives of the characters on screen, feeling empathy not just for their struggles with their father, but also with the struggles of the lives they’d been ignoring for too long.
There’s a genuine humanity not commonly found in this film, making it a hidden gem that I whole-heartedly recommend for anyone looking for precisely that. There were a lot of great movies this year that deserve the praise and attention they’ve been given, and while The Savages might not quite be on par with all of them, it is still worthy of the attention it is too unassuming to demand for itself.