THE SAVAGES written & directed by Tamara Jenkins (USA, 2007)
Though this movie received universal acclaim upon release, there were the inevitable naysayers. It’s interesting to read some of the negative comments. One says the story is depressing because it’s too much like real life while another says he was disappointed because he had expected a comedy.
I confess that, having glanced at the DVD cover image, I thought it would be more comic than dramatic. There are some amusing scenes but nothing to laugh out loud about. This is not so surprising since it touches upon a number heavy themes including sibling rivalry, mid-life crises, parental abuse and, most serious of all, dementia and dying. Not much cause for hilarity in this list!
It stars Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Wendy and Jon Savage. Both are single with messed up personal relationships, both have aspirations as writers and both are fundamentally unfulfilled.
When we meet this brother and sister they have plainly spent more time apart than together. Their reconnection is forced upon them as they have to deal with the rapidly declining physical and mental health of their estranged father, Lenny (Philip Bosco).
Lenny’s partner of 20 years has just died and their non-marriage agreement gave him no rights to her property so he is effectively homeless. Not only this, but he is showing clear signs of dementia with erratic mood swings and violent outbursts. Jon is a ruthlessly practical type and ignores the half-hearted protests of Wendy in deciding that he must be placed in a nursing home.
Although the plot is built around this elderly man’s declining health the real focus of the story is on his offspring. Jon is cold and emotionally detached, Wendy is scatty and sentimental. Finding a common ground is nigh on impossible.
Philip Seymour Hoffman brilliantly conveys his character’s intelligence but you also see how repressed he is. Laura Linney does dippy in an Annie Hall manner but also convinces you that Wendy Savage is a woman with hidden depths and frustrated potential.
One of the nursing homes the siblings consider has a slick TV ad promising to “minimise anxiety and make the later years golden”. A support group meeting in the home where Lenny is based in Buffalo gives equally sanitized advice taking ideas from Elder Care For Dummies, a title which sounds like a joke but turns out to a real book.
The strength of the movie is that it doesn’t gloss over or sentamentalize the real challenges of dementia. These are particularly marked when the family is a dysfunctional as that of The Savages.
This being popular entertainment there is the required upbeat ending although this is not as contrived or corny as most Hollywood fodder. This movie deals lightly, though never glibly, with the emotional trauma of caring for the mortally ill, reminding us that sickness and death have an uncanny way of exposing the frailty and transience of our own lives.
I suspect that anyone who finds this subject matter too depressing must either be lacking in compassion or be unwilling to face up to death as one of life’s few certainties.