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Film Review

The Savages

Old age is mostly awful. Whoever said that time is a thief that steals all, nailed it. Tamara Jenkins has written and directed (her second film) a gem of a film that depicts an unhappy middle aged brother and sister, Jon and Wendy Savage, who have to deal with an aging father that they have had virtually no communication with for years. Suddenly they have to find a nursing home for him, transport him across the country, and begin to reconnect with their father and each other. Neither sibling has married, both are neurotic and depressed, one a college professor trying to finish his book and the other working as a temp while having a dead end relationship with a married man. Wendy carries a complete pharmacy around in her purse (and uses it) and Jon has let his lovely, caring Polish girlfriend go back to Poland because he can't commit to marriage. The sibs are brilliantly played by two naturals, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, who surely are among the finest actors today in serious American cinema.

The children are beautifully observed, warts and all, stuck in life, as they try to deal with their own issues, their relationship with each other, and their emotionally abusive and increasingly demented father. The dementia is recent, but it becomes clear that the abuse had deep roots and profound effects on the children. The film opens in Sun City, Arizona, a retirement community which seems to be a brilliantly colored, monotonous, artificial netherworld. In contrast, much of rest of the film takes place in an drab nursing home in Buffalo during the winter, with its depressing, sterile, and often humiliating environment, but not without many sly comic touches. In one memorable scene, the father's choice of vintage film screened for his birthday is The Jazz Singer, which of course depicts Al Jolson getting into black face. This in a nursing home whose staff is predominately black. The reaction is wonderfully expressed by not words, but simply expressions. This film has great power, but with much understatement. No dramatics here, the conflicts and agony are internalized. There is a lot of very clever, witty dialog throughout, mixed with sadness. Jon is telling Wendy, his sister, that he is having trouble finishing his book on Bertolt Brecht. Wendy replies, just the thing for the Christmas season. Both sibs are stuck, and their struggles seem very real and realistically depicted. There is a very touching scene (among many) with a black nursing home attendant that Laura thinks is from Jamaica, that will linger in your memory. It may sounds as if The Savages is a downer film. Not at all. Sad at times, but with such careful observation and great compassion. Not sentimental but sweet nevertheless, and often with humor.

This film is so well done and so well worth seeing. In addition to Hoffman and Linney's great performances, everyone else, even the most minor characters, are wonderful. The Savages has such subtlety and often the short lines of dialog say so much more than long speeches. This is a very fine effort, all the more remarkable because Jenkins both wrote the screenplay and directed. Because many of the scenes are indoors, this film should actually translate well to a smaller screen. I loved The Savages, and was very moved, as you will be too. And I'm proud that such an accomplished film was made in the US of A. What a great New Year's present! Playing at the Embarcadero.

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