Directed by Tamara Jenkins
The Savages is a great but hard to watch film. It’s bleak but funny and eventually a little heart-warming, granted that positivity didn’t quite feel in character with the rest of the film. The story is about how messy death can be. This is about death as a real concern, mainly for the people left behind to deal with it, both emotionally and logistically. In many movies, death is an instantaneous, dramatic plot point. Here it’s inevitable and drawn out.
The focus of The Savages is a pair of siblings, Jon and Wendy (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laura Linney) who seem to have grown apart from each other and certainly from their elderly father and who seem equally dissatisfied with their purposefully intellectual lifestyles. Wendy is an aspiring playwright in New York City who works a series of temp jobs and is carrying on a relationship with a married man in her apartment building. Jon is a dramatic arts professor in Buffalo who can’t commit to his Polish girlfriend who might marry him were he to ask.
The common denominator between them is their shared misery, which they seem to have come by individually. Maybe it’s a family thing. When their father’s girlfriend passes away, they remark that they didn’t even know where their father was living. His residence is a simultaneously glorious and horrifying retirement community in Arizona. The film opens with a dreamy montage of shots of this community, making it seem like the heaven you temporarily reside in before you die. It’s perfect, maybe not for the residents despite their apparent contentment, but certainly for the children who need not feel guilty for leaving an aging parent or grandparent in such a place.
Lenny (Philip Bosco), has been living with his girlfriend of twenty years, but when she passes away, the girlfriend’s adult children force Lenny to move out, considering he has no legitimate claim to the property. It’s up to the reluctant Jon and Wendy, then, to find him somewhere else to live. Jon is quick to put him in a nursing home considering Lenny’s approaching dementia and risk of falling while Wendy, guilty, insists they find him the right home.
Soon Lenny is brought up to Buffalo to live at a perfectly ordinary and unexciting community neat Jon’s own home. It’s already the early stages of November when they get out there, and both decide to settle down in the area through the holidays in order to help their father adjust to the new living situation.
Lenny dies, eventually, and it feels inevitable, even if a bit quick, considering the point of the movie. In one scene, the tension between Jon and Wendy boils over when they get into a fight about changing nursing homes. Jon illustrates the possible theme of the movie:
The entire movie feels like we’re circling the drain and not just for Lenny. Jon is 42 and Wendy is 39. They both address how the other isn’t young anymore. Still, they’re stuck on a sort of treadmill. Jon refuses to marry his Polish girlfriend of three years, referring to marriage as if it’s unthinkable despite his age. Wendy is in a poorly-chosen relationship that offers her no fulfillment beyond alleviating a temporary loneliness.
They’re each kept busy by their work, something they seem to use like a shield, holding off the world around them. A movie like this makes being smart feel incredibly unappealing. Jon and Wendy are like the intellectual version of a jock in an 80s movie. Their intelligence isolates them and makes them treat others with either disdain or outright dislike. That being said, we don’t much see them interact with the outside world, only Lenny and the people in his orbit.
The job of caring for a loved one is thankless, at least in The Savages. Lenny is hardly a character throughout the film and only really gets a single moment to express a point of view. Mostly just something to be moved, cleaned or propped up, in one scene Lenny chooses to turn off his hearing aid as his adult children scream at each other for the thousandth time.
The heart of the movie is the sibling relationship between Jon and Wendy. They fight and pick at each other as siblings do, but they share moments of joy that might feel a little cheesy or forced in another movie but are delivered with the perfect touch here. It also helps that Hoffman was and Linney is a brilliant performer.
Jon and Wendy are in pain, but they’re at least half or most of the reason for this pain. It’s self-assigned, in a way, like homework. Maybe they learned it from their father or maybe they consider the world around them to be beneath them. If that’s the case, the care Lenny requires is humbling. We see Jon and Wendy at their worst, in pain or discomfort or just stressed beyond belief.
The Savages is a rough go of things but a worthwhile viewing. It’s a wonderful movie made with the right, personal touch, and what might easily feel unimportant, uninteresting or unnecessary is anything but. It’s a story that compels you to take care of yourself for fear of turning into someone that in the future no longer can. Not just Lenny, but Jon and Wendy seem incapable of growth, like an old dog who can’t learn new tricks.
In the end, though, they do. They remain tenderly supportive of each other, and each has a career that’s starting to look up. The only justification for the positivity in the final scenes of the film comes from the “Six Months Later” title card. It just takes time, in some cases, to heal old wounds. Though it doesn’t quite seem to be tonally consistent, we almost just need a positive ending to know that this is all endurable.
In a cheerful final shot, Wendy goes for a run with a dog we believed to have been euthanized due to bad hips. That dog, Marley, runs happily and energetically with the aid of a set of wheels, alleviating the pressure on her hips. We all need a little help, this might be saying.
Up Next: The Killing (1956), Wiener-Dog (2016), Last Flag Flying (2017)