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Tamara Jenkins's new film, The Savages, is not difficult to describe, but it is very difficult to write about in a way that will distinguish it from the raft of independent comedies about dysfunctional American families that has been floating through movie theatres for several years now. Many of these films — Little Miss Sunshine, for example — are equally notable, but the things that make them different are difficult to capture in print — which is probably as it should be. It may eventually emerge that pictures that we bracket together today don't really belong in the same group at all. And a film as nimble with delicate reactions and quietly registered emotions as The Savages will take time to appreciate. All we can say for the moment is that it promises to be lastingly powerful.
Title and billings notwithstanding, this is Laura Linney's film. The action focuses on her character, Wendy Savage, even when she is shown together with Wendy's brother, Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) or with her father, Len (Philip Bosco). It is no complaint to say that the men are not opened up to the extent that Wendy is; what Ms Jenkins has given us is plenty. But the title and the billings are somewhat misleading. The Savages is not the ensemble piece that it appears to be in trailers. Again, that's no complaint. The film is a beautiful piece of work. But it is always regrettable when a movie and its title - and hence the buzz - are out of sync, even a little bit. Audiences, especially smart audiences, having been led to expect X, tend to be disappointed with Y, no matter how good Y is.
The Savages, then, is not so much about a brother and sister trying to cope with their long-lost but suddenly dependent father. It is not about the flat horror of Sun City or the rich horror of nursing homes. It is not about simmering sibling rivalry. These are not features of the movie but its accessories. The Savages is about a woman who finds, in early middle age, that her options have narrowed almost to the vanishing point. She has used up her allotted youth, but she has also resisted adulthood. (Not for nothing are she and her brother called after the Darling children of Peter Pan.) Her life is so unsatisfactory that she cannot be honest about it. Ms Jenkins sees Wendy's dishonesty as an occasional trait rather than as a character flaw. It does not get Wendy into deep trouble. It merely embarrasses her whenever she's caught out at telling fibs.
Wendy tends to get away with telling fibs — with everyone but her brother. Jon is used to Wendy's lying, so he checks out her stories. She ought to have known that he will, just as we ought to have seen the moment of reckoning coming. But we're still learning that Wendy bends uncomfortable truths. We're given an example, almost as a test pattern, early in the show. Although her gynecologist's office calls to tell her that the results of her latest pap smear are fine, Wendy invents, in a moment of dissatisfaction with her married lover, the prospect of surgery, and packs it with all the dread of cervical cancer. Ms Jenkins handles this moment comically, by having Larry reply that his wife "had that." Of all the imaginable reasons for his knowledgeable sympathy, this is certainly the most unwelcome, and we laugh both at Wendy, because her lie has brought such an unwanted response, and at Larry, because he doesn't understand that Wendy would be within her rights (so to speak) to be upset with him even if she did have cancer.
Later, in Buffalo, at her brother's — Jon teaches there, and he has persuaded Wendy to put their father in a local nursing home that he can visit; he persuades her, further, to stay for the winter holidays — Wendy receives a parcel of mail from Larry in New York City, in which she clearly finds a reply to a grant request. We have seen Wendy write, print, and mail several grant requests while ostensibly temping at an office from which she appears to steal more than just stationery and postage. She opens the envelope; we watch her intently. Will the news be good or bad? We can tell that it is not only good but something of a surprise. But she doesn't tell Jon about it right away. She keeps it to herself until its value as a trump card matures, and then she announces to Jon that she has been awarded a Guggenheim grant. As she delivers this whopper, her face gleams with the strain of dishonesty; her poker face is not her most successful feature. So what did the letter say? This time, we have to wait a bit to find out, although the answer, once again, is not without its comical effects — for us. Welcome as the grant that she really has received must be, it's an early warning of asphyxiation: Wendy is running out of resources.
The Savages is light-handed about the story's inevitable commonplace, which is that Len's collapse liberates his children from childhood. There are no epiphanies, no moments of release. With their father out of the picture, the Savages are simply free to deal with familiar situations in new and different ways. When we last see Jon, he is about to fly to Cracow, to try to revive a healthy relationship that he probably ought to have held on to. As for Wendy, the only word for the way in which she wraps up her relationship with Larry is "elegant." She goes for what she really needs and junks the rest. That is honesty — at last.
Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman are both actors than whom it is impossible to imagine more subtle insinuators, and The Savages is a triumph for both of them. Mr Bosco, ordinarily a loquacious actor, brings to his largely silent role an intimation of dumb animal despair that is almost as surprising, coming from him, as the unusual angles of his face that are captured by Ms Jenkins and her cinematographer, W Mott Hopfel III. For a film in which almost no one looks good, and in which very few people are in any kind of presentable shape, The Savages is easy to watch, because Ms Jenkins imposes a quiet but firmly-grasped stylization on her scenes, particularly the exteriors. Thanks to cinematic alchemy, she is able to make a visual virtue of the utter charmlessness of rust-belt winters. Even more surprising, though, is a detail that doesn't strike home until the film is over — and about which I don't intend for the moment to say more than this: Ms Jenkins has cast Mr Hoffman against type. (December 2007)
Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press