Smile Politely

Savages Learn to Lick Open Wounds

It’s the phone call we all dread. The one that begins with, “I’m afraid we have a problem. Your father has been found writing in the bathroom with pieces of his own shit.” Yep, it’s all down hill from there.

Yet that’s the message that’s dropped into the laps of Jon and Wendy Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman & Laura Linney) one day and these estranged siblings are forced to not only deal with one another, but come to terms with Lenny (Philip Bosco), their father who abandoned them years earlier.

Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages is a film that pulls no punches in its examination of the denial and dysfunction that plagues its three main characters. On the surface, this is not a film that you would likely tell your friends to rush out and see. Yet, Jenkins is able to honestly approach the uncomfortable issues at the film’s core. What emerges is a promise of hope and perhaps redemption, for Jon and Wendy, but only after they’ve come to terms with many hard truths about themselves and their relationship with their father.

Wendy is stuck and she knows it. Working one dead-end job after another, she longs to be a playwright and applies for every grant that will help her achieve this goal. Adding insult to injury is the fact that she’s also involved with a married man who has no intention of leaving his wife. On the other hand, Jon at least puts forth the illusion that he is successful, but really, he’s just spinning his wheels as well. Though he’s tenured at the university he teaches at, he’s been struggling to finish his dissertation towards his PhD for years. He too seems incapable of sustaining a romantic relationship as his long-time Polish girlfriend is returning to her native land as he refuses to marry her so that she might remain in the states.

Then, that phone call comes and it proves to be the wake-up call both siblings need, though they don’t realize it at first. With his roommate dead, no savings to fall back on and the first stages of dementia creeping in, their father, Lenny is at the mercy of the two children he’s not spoken to in nearly a decade. Perhaps it’s a good thing he’s not completely lucid as it prevents him from picking up on the disdain that Jon feels for him or the desperation that Wendy exhibits in wanting to gain his approval. Before you know it, the elder Savage is whisked from Arizona to Buffalo and placed in a threadbare retirement center that his son has found after very little effort.

Jenkins displays great confidence in her strength and her cast by taking the time to develop the uncomfortable relationship that exists between these three. She does not pretend to offer up any easy answers regarding the issue of abandonment that looms over them and unblinkingly looks at the damage that has hobbled them all. She knows that these wounds will not heal over night but that baby-steps are required where reconciliation is concerned. The scenes that Hoffman and Linney share perfectly capture this as they tentatively reconnect with one another, broaching delicate subjects from their past and forcing them to face the mistakes they continue to make. These two performers feed off of each other in a remarkable manner, as they able to convey so much without speaking. Much like siblings who share the same past, Hoffman and Linney communicate with each other through silences and side glances, alluding to their painful past without words yet knowing that it presides over everything they do.

While Jenkins’ film sounds like nothing but a downer, it’s brave enough to approach aspects of the Savages’ familial dysfunction with wry black humor. A movie night at Lenny’s new home where he is allowed to choose the evening’s feature couldn’t be more inappropriate, while Wendy and Jon both have epiphanies about their lives in ways that they’d like to quickly forget. This sort of uncomfortable material allows us to examine things that we’d rather ignore and attempt to solve problems which initially seem to have no answers. In the end, by learning to care for their father, Jon and Wendy begin to see how they can care for themselves. The cure to their plight is almost as bad as their afflictions, but the treatment they receive in the end is cathartic for both them and us.

Opens today at Boardman’s Art Theatre
Runtime: 1hr 53min – Rated R – Comedy/Drama

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