LYT's Film Pick of the Weekend 11-30-07

Ooooh yeah, dig it...THE SAVAGES.

The name of the movie is one of those insufferable cutesy puns – these characters have the surname of “Savage” and they behave poorly! Why, that's ironic! -- but don't let that deter you from the rest of the movie, a film that achieves the rare balance of being both hilarious and tragic.

It begins with a lovably surreal musical number in the suburbs of Arizona, with elderly chorus girls, before rubbing our faces in shit, literally – Dad Savage (Philip Bosco) is losing his mind, and writing words in his feces. If that weren't bad enough, his elderly wife then dies...only she's not his wife, just a long-term companion with whom he had the equivalent of a pre-nup, so that on her death, he gets nothing but a metaphorical boot out the door, right when he needs care the most.

So it's up to daughter Wendy (Laura Linney) and son Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman, conquering the season with the trifecta of this, BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD, and CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR) to take care of the problem, and since both are floundering – Wendy as a playwright desperately in search of grants, Jon as a theater professor who can't get his life together or keep his house clean (college professors never can – they ain't the type, in my experience) – it's a bigger challenge than expected. Add to that the fact that dad was a neglectful, nasty parent to begin with, and you see the dilemma. Wendy tries to over-compensate by suddenly becoming the super-caring one (a stance that doesn't fit her well), while Jon reckons the basics are enough, and still an improvement on the way they were raised.

So the siblings bicker, cope, and bicker some more, while also dealing with romantic issues: Jon has a Polish girlfriend whose visa is about to expire, and Wendy's carrying on an affair with a middle-aged guy who really ain't such hot stuff. Caring for a deteriorating parent, it is implied, makes them finally start thinking outside of themselves and thus more ready for mature relationships of their own, which may be a bit too tidy, but this is a movie, after all, and demands a certain degree of resolution.

The script is so sharp that I was astonished when I went home, checked imdb, and found out THE SAVAGES was written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, whose last feature, SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS, struck me as an awfully clumsy mess, wildly overpraised by reviewers who somehow failed to notice glaring editing/continuity errors in addition to its weak story. But this, based on real-life experiences, is far truer and richer. I may be more susceptible than most to this sort of thing – like Mr. Savage, my father has recently received an indeterminate diagnosis of what may be Parkinson's, though he's a long way from crazy turd tricks. Nevertheless, this could be “Coming Attractions” -- and my life is as messy as that of the Savage kids.


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