There’s much more wrong than right with The Savages, an off-putting entry in the daddy’s-dyin’-who’s-got-the-will (the emotion, not the document) genre from Slums of Beverly Hills writer/director Tamara Jenkins. The strained magical-realist prologue, wherein numerous elder residents of the Sun City, Arizona retirement community emerge from behind perfectly trimmed shrubbery (shades of Edward Scissorhands) to the tinkle of a precious, quirk-infused score (for his work here, composer Stephen Trask should be violently beaten upside the head with his marimbas), is the first red-alert warning sign that we’re in for a long hour-fifty three. That the sequence concludes with the dementia-afflicted Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) writing “prick” on the bathroom wall with his own shit only deepens the sinking sensation finally hammered home by the answering machine greeting, crooned by All About Eve’s Margo Channing (Bette Davis), which taunts each and every caller to the run-down Manhattan abode of Lenny’s daughter Wendy (Laura Linney): “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
Indeed, further: I can conceive of extended tortures more preferable to watching Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman (as Wendy’s sad-sack professor brother Jon) play-act at sibling rivalry. Thrown together by their estranged father’s rapid descent into Alzheimer’s and his sudden need for a nursing home, Wendy and Jon navigate a turbulent and entirely contrived terrain of brother/sister antagonism. The primary instigator of their not-so-subdued resentment: Wendy’s unpublished semi-autobiographical plays and Jon’s long-gestating study on Bertolt Brecht, both of which force a perpetually vicious competition between the duo. Jenkins includes references to Brecht throughout: two appearances, herein, of Lotte Lenya’s cover of “Solomon’s Song”, its oft-repeated refrain (“How fortunate the man with none”) perhaps meant as an implicit, ironic counterpart to the father Savage’s memory-depleting crisis.
Despite his precursory shit-slinging, Bosco is exemplary as Lenny, whose loss-of-self forces a more primal reliance on moment-to-moment instinct (when his pants drop on a crowded airplane, revealing bulging adult diapers, Lenny’s blank, child-like stare speaks penetrating volumes). Bosco plays all the beats of Alzheimer’s and old age with a complete lack of tear-stained sentiment, which helps to undercut Jenkins’ oft-saccharine visual metaphors (one toe-curling doozy is plucked wholesale from The Wizard of Oz, and given something of a Nigerian folklore twist), though the writer/director does get the sad and sodden feel of nursing homes (whatever the social status of their clientele) just right.
But for every one of these diamonds in the rough there’s some equally or more misguided counterbalance, such as the movie night sequence (featuring a screening of that stalwart racial pariah The Jazz Singer), which reveals Jenkins’ tendency towards easy, intellectually shallow potshots: the mostly black nursing home staff, portrayed up to this point with an admirable level of complexity, suddenly become glowering symbols of white man’s burden—all for a cheap laugh. And there’s no getting past the Actor’s Studio performances of Linney and Hoffman, both awful, both confusing actorly tics and mannered tears for the subtlety and insight of a blood-tied familial relationship.
Most embarrassing is a scene played with Hoffman hanging, red-faced and apple-cheeked, from a temporary neck brace, another shining example of that old writer’s chestnut—the sideline-injury-as-excuse-for-a-heart-to-heart (if these two self-absorbed constructs can be said to have anything resembling vasculars and ventricles). Each undercuts the other with thinly veiled, eventually outright hostile insults about Guggenheim fellowships and Brechtian theater, yet their one-upsmanship is only skin-deep, a prop-laden acting exercise—indicated rather than experienced—passed off as harsh truth. Hoffman and Linney are never believable as brother and sister for a single, solitary moment, so it’s perhaps something of an unintended meta-comment when Lenny turns down his hearing aid to block out his progeny’s constant squabbling. Call them, per The Savages’ fest-approved origins, Bitch & Sundance.
Keith Uhlich is co-editor of The House Next Door and a contributor to various print and online publications.