Phil on Film Index

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Review - The Savages

The Savages is the third film featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman to be released here in the space of two weeks, but that's no bad thing. The actor was on great form in both Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and Charlie Wilson's War, but in each case his impressive characterisation was wasted on a film in which he was by far the most interesting element. Finally, in Tamara Jenkins' new picture, Hoffman's best performance yet is complemented by equally superb displays from the rest of the ensemble, and a screenplay which tackles uncomfortable themes with astounding perceptiveness and wit. Hoffman and Laura Linney play siblings Jon and Wendy Savage. He's a downbeat theatre professor struggling to finish his long-in-gestation biography of Brecht ("well, he was a very complex man"), while she's a neurotic would-be playwright having an unfulfilling affair with a married man (Peter Friedman). They are brought together when their irascible father Lenny (Philip Bosco) starts showing signs of dementia – writing 'prick' on the wall in faeces during an early scene – and they have to struggle with the reality of caring for a man who never showed them much love when they were growing up.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney are two of the best actors working in cinema today, and the opportunity to see them playing off each other in this picture is one no lover of great screen acting should pass up. Hoffman is all crumpled cynicism while Linney is highly-strung and self-absorbed, and while neither character seems particularly likable on paper, the richness and nuance in their performances are completely absorbing. Every scene is pitched at exactly the right tone, both actors displaying a stunning ability to draw both humour and pathos out of any given situation as required, and their tangible chemistry is a joy to behold. Still, you can't blame Lenny when, in one scene, he switches off his hearing aid and turns his face to the car window while his offspring squabble like children next to him. At times, Jon and Wendy appear to be so wrapped up in their own dilemmas they are in danger of forgetting about the man whose malaise has brought them together, but Jenkins never allows us to forget about him. Lenny is cranky and abrasive, but Philip Bosco's performance grows increasingly touching as his character tries to hold onto some semblance of dignity in the face of his debilitating illness, and struggles to make sense of his brief moments of clarity.

Jenkins directs her own script with great sensitivity and openness. She has a fine eye for small, telling details – minor gestures which can speak volumes – and she tends towards hinting at the characters' backstories instead of spelling out Lenny's abusive past.
The Savages does follow a straightforward narrative arc, with Jon and Wendy growing and changing as they grapple with their experiences, but Jenkins won't let her story slide into easy sentimentality or settle for pat resolutions. Her writing retains a toughness throughout and she gives her characters the opportunity to grow in organic, believable ways; but the film's biggest achievement lies in the tonal balancing act it walks with such grace. The Savages is moving and realistic, sure, but it's also frequently hilarious, finding unexpected humour in almost every scene, and Jenkins never errs in her shifts between this story's darkness and light. I could have done without the weak final scene, and Jenkins' decision to open with a strange set of dancing ladies hints at a quirkier, less engaged route that she (thankfully) doesn't take; but aside from those minor caveats The Savages is a satisfying, adult piece of work which is never less than brutally honest, and never less than seriously funny.