As a film partly about the care of a dementia-addled senior citizen, The Savages naturally invites comparisons to Away From Her—all of them unflattering. Tamara Jenkins’s first feature since 1998’s Slums of Beverly Hills depicts a retirement community in Arizona as a creepy and surreal environment where old women in cheerleader outfits are apt to pop out of the trimmed topiary, while the Buffalo, NY nursing home where local theater professor Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his sister Wendy (Laura Linney), a temp and aspiring playwright, place their father Lenny (Philip Bosco)—after he writes on his residence’s bathroom walls with feces—is a dreary morgue that, as Jon puts it, smells like “shit and piss and rotten stink.” Jenkins condescends to and/or mocks the elderly, such as when she meanly lingers on the vacant countenance of Lenny’s ailing girlfriend, and then goes for a cheap, demeaning laugh by having the woman drop dead face-first onto a table during a manicure.
Her story, however, isn’t really about them. Rather, it’s about Wendy and Jon, two miserable adults whose messy lives are reflected in their frumpy clothes and hairstyles. Jon, whose girlfriend is returning home to Poland, is struggling to finish a book about Brecht, and the pill-popping Wendy can’t land a Guggenheim grant for her writing and continues to sleep with a married man (Peter Friedman). They’re both neurotic disasters whose problems can be traced to their crummy parents, which doesn’t make them more sympathetic but does diminish one’s sympathy for papa Jon when he turns down his hearing aid during another of his kids’ squabbles. Linney and Hoffman dutifully embody their roles, yet Jenkins never justifies having any interest in these cretins’ plight.
That the humor is mostly callous is mitigated by the fact that it’s generally secondary to turgid drama, so that, for example, gags about Wendy and Jon screening The Jazz Singer while black nurses watch in disgust are less crucial than the sight of her protagonists grieving over a lousy father not worth caring about. Worse, though, is that the writer-director both uses Wendy as a mouthpiece to cop to her film’s flaws, and then pardons them. “You didn’t think it was some middle-class whining?” and “You didn’t think it’s self-important and bourgeois?,” Wendy asks about her work, only to be assured by others that it’s not. Um, yes it is, and by extension so is The Savages.