Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Savages

Every once in a while, either online or in real life, I get in a conversation that involves someone mentioning how they don't go to the movies any more, or didn't enjoy their last cinematic experience, because kids just don't know how to behave in a movie theater. "Kids", of course, can refer to actual small children, teenagers, college-aged people, folks in their twenties, or, depending upon how old the curmudgeon in question is, folks in their mid-thirties like myself. I think the most recent one was online, in response to A.O. Scott's article about how it's sometimes good for children to be brought to PG-13 or R-rated movies.

Anyway, I'd just like to mention that the people talking too much during the screening of The Savages that I attended were all in their forties and fifties, with maybe one or two older than that. The lesson, obviously, is that no matter what your age, race, class, or creed, nobody else in the theater knows how to act properly.

The Savages

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 January 2008 at AMC Boston Common #19 (first-run)

I suppose that those of us who don't connect fully with The Savages should count ourselves as lucky; it means in part that we have yet to go through the trials that come with the looming ends of our parents' lives. Even without the personal experience to back it up, that part of the film is still effective; it's the title characters who are maybe a bit too much.

Wendy Savage (Laura Linney) works as a temp in Manhattan while applying for grants to finish her play about her screwed-up family; brother Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) teaches theater in Buffalo. A call from Sun City, Arizona informs them that father Lenny (Philip Bosco) is now their problem after the death of his long-time girlfriend. So they find him a nursing home near Jon's house and try to do right by him even though he seldom did right by them, resulting in their screwed-up state.

Movies like The Savages have to be at least a little mean, but writer/director Tamara Jenkins's venom frequently seems to be at least a little misdirected. The opening half-hour or so, especially, has a few sequences that seem calculated to make senior citizens look foolish, and while that works when we see Wendy and Jon having less than generous reactions, there has to be a better way to get across that caring for Lenny is going to be a hassle for which his children are not prepared than making all old people look ridiculous. There's also a few bits of Wendy working out to an exercise tape which makes her look silly, but to no real end - most people look silly in that situation, and that Wendy does doesn't say anything about her.

The idea is that title family has difficulty forming connections with other people, which is reflected in their other relationships: Jon can't bring himself to marry his girlfriend Kasia (Cara Seymour) despite them having been together for years and her impending deportation back to Poland; Wendy has trysts with a married man (Peter Friendman) but seems more enthusiastic about his dog. Wendy and Jon even have problems with each other, although not much worse than the normal tendency of siblings to bicker.

Since they're playing flawed characters, it's natural to have some reservations about the performances. Laura Linney is sometimes a little too much as Wendy, and not necessarily just in terms of how she's supposed to be a little off-putting. She's so closed-off most of the time that when she perks up when the subject of meds to put one's mind at ease comes up, it seems incongruous, especially since they don't seem to change her behavior very much. Hoffman is his usual reliable self as the somewhat more functional Jon. Bosco mainly has to be a hostile old guy, but gets a lot of credit for making Lenny's dementia feel much more real than just being a few tics.

My complaint with The Savages isn't that its characters aren't likable - Jon and Wendy generally come off better than my description, as they are at least trying to do right - but that Jenkins doesn't use their lesser qualities to interesting ends. Screwed-up people can be compelling, but Jon and Wendy just don't have enough charisma, positive or negative, to really grab this audience member's interest.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with three other reviews

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