It’s hard to imagine a more potent test of family solidarity than the decision-making process regarding what to do with a sick and helpless relative. When it comes to dealing with the growing army of senile parents, most of us have no idea what the hell we’re doing. Tamara Jenkins plumbs the depths of that terror in her new film, The Savages, which asks what it’s like to care for a father who never cared for you.
If you saw Jenkins’ autobiographical 1998 cult comedy, Slums of Beverly Hills, you won’t be expecting serene self-sacrifice from Wendy and Jon Savage (Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman), middle-aged siblings whose relationship to each other and their fast-fading dad, Lenny (Philip Bosco), strains the very definition of family, never mind adulthood.
Less antic and more nuanced than Slums, The Savages still serves a fat helping of the grotesque. But the movie also comes with a wistful sadness; it’s the work of an instinctive provocateur maturing into a filmmaker. Jenkins understands that, in matters of death, sorrow and black comedy walk hand in hand.
Estranged from their overbearing father and a mother who checked out early, Jon and Wendy delude themselves into believing that they’ve cut the family cord and moved on with their lives. In reality, Wendy is a stalled East Village playwright (that is, a temp), and Jon is a college professor who cranks out papers that no one will ever read and refuses to marry his Polish girlfriend (Cara Seymour), even though he weeps when she makes him eggs. Trapped in extended adolescence, the two rattle around their separate but equally cramped lives, which grow more crowded when a phone call informs Wendy that Dad has flunked out of his retirement home.
Bosco gives a hilariously physical performance, but, at its core, The Savages is about a brother and sister who have been hopelessly failed in the parenting department and misbehave accordingly. There’s something inexpressibly moving about watching the compulsively proactive Wendy come apart at the seams as she overcompensates for her phlegmatically withdrawn brother.
Jenkins is no sentimentalist, and she doesn’t patronize her benighted losers or her audience with epiphanies, apologies or blinding insights. Yet the movie is dotted with moments of grace and whacked-out humor that signal this damaged duo’s liberation.