The Savages (2007)

October 10, 2008 § Leave a comment

I like a film that has a character throw out a real-sounding, interesting line like “He won’t marry me, but when I fix him eggs, he cries.”  People are complex.  Whitman said, “I contain multitudes,” and he said it without apology.  I do appreciate a film that acknowledges this in subtle ways.  It’s unfortunate, then, that the next scene has the same woman cooking eggs, and her boyfriend eating them and crying.  American mainstream films can be ridiculously heavy-handed, but it seems even in their art films they’re tempted to say “Look, see?  Get it?”

It’s Philip Seymour Hoffman crying over eggs, as a somewhat listless character letting his girlfriend go back to Poland on an expired Visa (rather than marry her), and forced to spend time with his somewhat listless sister, played by Laura Linney, when the two of them need to deal with their elderly, dying father.  Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, the film is lucky to feature these two terrific American actors, who take a good script and make sure it’s as touching and meaningful as it can possibly be.  Despite these actors, the result is somewhat mixed.  I appreciate films that tell a small story extremely well, and while The Savages is admirable for not flinching away from painfully awkward moments — such as asking your elderly father if he would prefer burial or cremation —  I can’t honestly say those painfully awkward moments elicited much response from me at all, except to note how pretty damn painful and awkward they looked.

It isn’t my intention to sound jaded or uncaring, but I think we can all guess that it’s a difficult thing to take a fiercely independent, decaying man and put him in a nursing home.  Those of us who have been through it already know, and those of us who haven’t can take a pretty good guess.  In between these moments, we get serious hints he was an abusive father, and that the brother and sister (who grew up to be a writer and an academic) can’t maintain relationships.  Why did they both become writers, and what are they trying to accomplish in such a listless, pre-defeated way?  These are interesting questions the film deals with only occasionally, in favour of scenes where the Linney character is racing around the nursing home to find the big red pillow she bought for her father, or her long pause after she’s handed some diapers and told he’ll be needing them.  It isn’t that it’s a terrible film, and certainly a lot of truthful moments about individual struggles and elderly parents are captured here, in scenes that are flawlessly acted.  I just wanted to know a little more about what happened in the Savage family to deserve that choice of name, and these two struggling siblings, who seem to be among the good and the wounded.


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