The Savages

The Savages


Reviewed by: Ben Sillis

It's a tragic fact of life that as medical technology extends our lives it does nothing to improve them into later years. An aging population kept alive but lost to the world through senility is no laughing matter, but that's no reason not to make a comedy about the subject, as Tamara Jenkins has done in her new film The Savages.

Jenkins' tempered direction, combined with superb performances from Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, creates a drama of shades of grey, as depressing as the care home at its centre, yet touching and fond in the love that some of those involved in this trainwreck of a family eventually find.

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In fact, I'd surely say the leads were Oscar contenders, if a) any Academy voters actually watch this and b) if there even are any awards this year. However, the cast merely polish a pristine script which poignantly captures the tragedies of getting old in a new age: the cruel irony that to receive the best care the elderly still have to be able to look after themselves, and the horrible tension of the phone call in the middle of the night.

In a surreal but all too real opening scene that sets the tone of awkward amusement and bodily waste for the rest of the film, elderly Lenny Savage wipes his shit all over the bathroom wall. When he's diagnosed with dementia and turfed out of the house of his deceased girlfriend, it's left up to his children to finally grow up and look after him.

But Lenny's decline goes on in the background, as if to represent how marginalised he is: the film is more about Lenny's offspring, their reaction to his deterioration and why they can't cope any better than a man who doesn't know what city he's in. Jon (Hoffman) and Wendy (Linney) are brother and sister in New York state, the fallout of an unhappy upbringing neither wants to talk about, though it's revealed that their mother formed almost no part of it.

Between conducting affairs, failing to find work - Wendy spends her time applying for prestigious grants she'll never get - and bundling their father out on joyless outings, the two compete in a subtly American way to see who can be more screwed up. Oh god I'm so fucked up, I'm so ill, my love life is messed up, have you tried these anti-depressants?, go on, try my illness, it's nice, and on and on. They should call it Newyoroticism.

At any rate, this is a disturbingly accurate portrayal of the New York intelligentsia, or those that I've met at least. Hoffman's drama teacher, whose pile of books on Brecht littering his house prevent him from actually publishing any work on the man, sits just on the right side of caricature. Self-centered yet embittered with a practical realism, he's reminiscent of a straighter version of Steve Carrell's Proust scholar in Little Miss Sunshine.

Laura Linney meanwhile is superb, but dangerously close to becoming typecast. This is the second film in recent years in which Linney has played a middle class New York playwright with a screwed up love life and a penchant for anti-depression drugs (See 2005's The Squid And the Whale). Indeed, there are perhaps too many similarities between the two: the stressful scene as the siblings bicker over a game of tennis is lifted almost frame for frame from Noah Baumbach's film.

Linney repeating one of her finest creations is no bad thing, but it's all over a bit quickly. In the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas Lenny is diagnosed, interred (or would incarcerated be a better word?) in a care home, and then dies. This works fine for a film narrative but doesn't sit easily with the prospect of the decade or more many middle aged people spend caring for parents who aren't even continent any more.

Reviewed on: 15 Jan 2008
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A brother and sister must cope with their elderly father’s increasing care needs.
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Read more The Savages reviews:

Paul Griffiths ****

Director: Tamara Jenkins

Writer: Tamara Jenkins

Starring: Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Bosco, Peter Friedman, David Zayas, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Cara Seymour, Tonye Patano, Guy Boyd, Debra Monk, Rosemary Murphy

Year: 2007

Runtime: 113 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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