Writer-director Tamara Jenkins' previous film, the terrific Slums of Beverly Hills, was one of the first to start the current dysfunction cycle, so it's fitting that The Savages plays like a sequel to the earlier film. Siblings Wendy and Jon Savage (Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman) are like grown-up version of that film's Natasha Lyonne and David Krumholtz characters, with dad Lenny (Philip Bosco) a darker version of Alan Arkin's storytelling pop reduced to raging against his failures by writing with his own excrement. Lenny has dementia, and as his long-estranged kids search for a nursing home for dad and struggle with the renewal of old wounds and resentments, Jenkins' screenplay expertly veers between laughter and quietly observed drama. Again, that sounds like the Sundance prototype, and it is, except that Jon and Wendy ring true as unique characters rather than types. Their emotional journey is charted not with big, showy personal revalations but through refreshingly understated scenes that suggest the strength of their relationship and the things they've suffered through together. Despite Jenkins' occasional overreliance on kitschy laughs (the death of an old woman at a nail salon particularly grates), when the film arrives at its inevitable moments of pathos, it's earned them.
Jenkins is aided tremendously by her leads - both Linney and Hoffman give their best performances in years. Just when I thought I'd tired of Linney's effective but familiar nervous screen presence (blame typecasting), she surprised me; Wendy is anxious, irritable and reluctant to grow up, but rather than playing her knowingly, Linney's performance hinges on the funny, sad notion of a very intelligent person who isn't nearly as self-aware as she thinks. Hoffman internalizes his performance, creating a character who constantly struggles to keep his emotions buried with more and more difficulty. A scene where Jon, spacing out on Percocet, sings along to "Salomon Song" in his car is the most quietly moving in the film (The Savages joins The Darjeeling Limited and Margot at the Wedding in its depiction of drug use among intellectuals). Hoffman and Linney play off each other beautifully as the siblings, one a playwright and the other a drama professor, analyze and agitate each other even as they grow closer over the impending death of their father and their own advancing age. Bosco is also terrific as their dad, communicating so much with his eyes as Lenny quietly slips away.
Like 2007's Away From Her, The Savages is refreshingly unsentimental in its depiction of aging and memory loss (both films, coincidentally, have a supporting character who works at the nursing home and offers the main character honesty and compassion). What could have easily been a two-hour spleen-venting session instead has a lot of insight to offer all of us who are eventually going to face taking care of our parents. Wendy asks Jon of her autobiographial play, "You don't think it's self-important and bourgeois?" And The Savages is arguably both of those things, yet somehow, improbably, it works.