By Matt Singer
[Photo: “The Savages,” Fox Searchlight, 2007]
It’s not something one often praises in a film, but there’s a mundaneness to “The Savages” that is incredibly appealing. The film is about a brother (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a sister (Laura Linney) dealing with their ailing father (Philip Bosco). That is all. There is no wacky road trip where they all reconnect, or a romanticized bank heist that solves all their unaddressed problems. That simplicity is refreshing, even if the movie’s tone is a little uneven.
Bosco’s Lenny Savage has been living with a woman in Arizona; when she dies, he is left without a home. It’s clear Lenny needs constant care and supervision just before his girlfriend’s death, he began acting out by writing on the bathroom wall with his own feces #151; so Hoffman’s Jon, an English professor, and Linney’s Wendy, a temp and struggling writer, must seek out an appropriate nursing home. This process, and all the accompanying stress and guilt that comes with it, sustains the picture for its running time.
Emotional scars weigh on every decision. Jon tries to do right by Lenny but clearly doesn’t want to be too inconvenienced; he finds him a decent facility near his home in Buffalo, but is totally uninterested in Wendy’s attempts to find a more hospitable environment. In one of their numerous arguments, he protests Wendy’s excessive concern, noting, “We’re taking better care of the old man than he ever did of us.” If they don’t particularly like their father, the Savage kids didn’t exactly save their love for each other, and their interactions throughout the film underscore their pettiness, their rivalry, and their jealousy of each other’s success.
If this doesn’t sound like a comedy, that’s because it probably shouldn’t be. Truth be told, the movie is not very funny, but there are scenes in “The Savages” that are clearly intended as the sort of awkward, quirky observational humor that’s evident in a lot of films that appear at Sundance (as this one did, earlier this year). This is probably the only area in which writer/director Tamara Jenkins tries a bit too hard by nature of its subject matter, this is a dark movie, and it was wise to try to leaven the seriousness with moments of humor. Still, the results feel forced.
The movie is much better when it simply observes its characters. “The Savages” evinces an off-the-cuff visual style that works well with its life-simply-captured approach. One particularly effective scene shows Jon speaking to Wendy on his cell phone while he stands out in the snow. Eventually the flakes begin to accumulate on the camera, smudging the image noticeably. But instead of breaking the illusion of the movie by suggesting the presence of the camera, the vérité-like moment removes the barriers between us and the screen and adds a sense of intimacy to the scene, as if we were there in Buffalo with Jon. In that moment, something as mundane as a dirty lens becomes something quite profound. Or perhaps I’ve just had my glasses smudged by the snow too many times.