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December 22, 2007 |

By John Williams | Film | December 22, 2007 |

The Savages begins where life ends, in the stunningly sunny, massively manicured surreality of Sun City, Arizona, where whizzing golf carts rule the road, great-grandmothers do choreographed dance routines in sequined leotards, and Leonard Savage (Philip Bosco) grows increasingly fragile and unreliable to himself. He begins shakily smearing messages on the bathroom wall with his own feces — not really the stuff of comedy, but when his estranged children head out from the east coast to check on him, laughter begins to leaven the weightier themes. Jon and Wendy (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) quizzically gaze at pamphlets about dementia in a hotel lounge while two low-rent crooners sing behind them. In this and other scenes, The Savages takes to heart the words of playwright George Bernard Shaw: “Life doesn’t cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.”

It becomes clear that Leonard will need full-time care, so the kids plan to bring him east and place him in a nursing home. Brother and sister are both capable, but also flat and lonely. Jon is unable to fully commit to a Polish girlfriend whose visa is expiring, and Wendy is engaged in a bland affair with an older married man. (Bland meaning: She nonchalantly reaches out to pet the dog during sex.)

Jon teaches theater theory and writes in Buffalo; Wendy works a menial job in New York City while she dreams of finishing a play based on their childhood. Theater crops up quite often in The Savages, and it’s easy to imagine the movie’s modest plot played out on a stage. In one funny scene, after Wendy has temporarily moved in with her brother, Jon stands rooted in place, attached to his door by a complicated neck brace while the two have an intense conversation. This provides laughs, but it’s also a practical ploy; Writer-director Tamara Jenkins uses a visual playfulness to keep things from feeling too spare.

You Can Count On Me, which also starred Linney, would be an obvious benchmark for The Savages, but those heights aren’t reached here, partly because Jon and Wendy aren’t quite different enough to create the same emotional complexity. They bicker, but it’s rooted in recognizing themselves in each other, whereas the siblings in You Can Count On Me legitimately mystified each other. Instead, if The Savages has a kindred spirit in recent memory, I would say it’s Wonder Boys, which features a slightly larger cast of central characters, but establishes a similar tone of smart-but-depressive people living in a formerly thriving industrial town now down on its luck (Pittsburgh playing the Buffalo role in Wonder Boys).

By starting so near to Leonard’s finish line, The Savages leaves us to imagine most of the family’s back story. This subtlety is admirable (speeches and flashbacks that provide explication kill more movies than one can count), but there’s still a certain lack in the narrative born from the tight focus.

As predictably good as Hoffman and Linney are (with this and his performance in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Hoffman has a legitimate case for two Oscar nods this year), it’s Bosco who deserves more praise than he’s likely to get playing opposite two such indie darlings. One freezing day, Jon and Wendy loudly argue about the dignity of certain nursing homes, and of death in general, while Leonard watches them from behind a car window. Bosco steals the scene — and others — without saying a word. He conveys Leonard’s disorientation and grief without relying on gimmicks, and his cranky but sympathetic figure is the heart of the movie.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

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The Savages / John Williams

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