Much like the title family it depicts so well, The Savages is constantly at odds with itself--hilarious yet heartbreaking, warm yet frigid. The result is one final contradiction: a movie that is tough to swallow, yet one of the year's best.
Misery loves the Savages--always has. Ever since they were kids, Wendy (Laura Linney) and Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) have been plagued by the blasé blues. Even though they went their separate ways, the siblings have remained somewhat close geographically--she lives in Manhattan, he in Buffalo--and in their discontentment. But what made them this way in the first place, their father (Philip Bosco), is about to reunite them. After losing his mind to dementia and his longtime girlfriend (Rosemary Murphy) to, well, death, the old man officially needs to be looked after, and that's where Jon and Wendy reluctantly come in. Despite having not seen their estranged father in ages, they fly out to his Arizona senior-citizen-friendly community immediately upon word of his downfall. What they didn't plan on, however, is staying more than a couple days. Ultimately, they take him back to Buffalo and place him in a nursing home, about which Wendy constantly feels guilty. Now forced to live together and look in the metaphorical mirror, the siblings Savage learn about self-discovery, mortality, each other, and how to revive a decades-old rivalry as though it had never gone away.
Given the way Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman constantly one-up each other in The Savages, you'd think there was a real sibling rivalry at play. Of course, it's merely two of today's very best actors giving par-for-the-course, flawless performances. In so doing, they create something beyond chemistry: a relationship so fractured and imperfectly perfect that it could only exist between an aging brother and sister. Whether the scene calls for fireworks or subtlety, solo or together, Linney and Hoffman are always up to the task. Linney is especially wide-ranging, as Wendy still fights her midlife crisis. The veteran actress is often heartbreaking because Wendy is often heartbroken, even when she tries to convince herself otherwise, but Linney still manages to leave the window of hope cracked open--for us and her character. She truly encompasses everything in this, her best performance to date. Hoffman is slightly more of a supporting player here, but no less impactful. The Oscar winner is apathetic through much of the film, but his terse outbursts of anger and/or sadness are stark reminders of his awe-inspiring range as an actor. Perhaps the most savage Savage is the patriarch, played with grace by longtime actor Bosco. But instead of vilifying Lenny or making him worthy of all your pity, Bosco makes him a rollercoaster of emotion as per Lenny's dementia.
It's been nine years since writer-director Tamara Jenkins' last--and only other--feature-length film, the twisted coming-of-age tale Slums of Beverly Hills, which has given her plenty of time to think, grow older, and think about growing older. She philosophizes aloud in The Savages, a movie that addresses everything you don't want to, but with a sardonic edge to it; in fact, maybe this is as much a coping mechanism for her as it is an artistic endeavor. While the movie is primarily about the title siblings, it essentially explores the human condition under their guise. But Jenkins does so in a way that is never preachy, never obnoxious, never sappy and always astutely observed. It's her naturalistic approach to moviemaking that will turn what is ultimately a sharp dramedy into too much of a downer to please casual moviegoers looking for lighthearted fare in wintertime--this is NOT Little Miss Sunshine--but those who go in looking for a drama will be moved, occasionally to laughter. Because The Savages is that rare deep movie: heavy on symbolism and meaning, light on pretense and contrivance.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 1/2 stars.