Jon and Wendy Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) have little patience for each other, let alone for their long-absent father. When the old man begins exhibiting symptoms of senility, however, they try to make a go of cooperating to look after him.
The teamwork doesn’t go well, or endure long, in the unsparing comic drama “The Savages.” Although the siblings haven’t seen each other in years (Hoffman’s line, “I’ve put on weight,” neatly establishes that it’s been quite a while), they snap into old rituals of mutual criticism, ego-puncturing and exasperation. The film is a holiday gift of sorts, allowing the lucky among us to give thanks that our own families aren’t that bad.
Writer/director Tamara Jenkins (“The Slums of Beverly Hills”) cleverly names her characters for the brother and sister in “Peter Pan” who refused to grow up. The pair have prolonged their adolescence and shirked adult responsibility well into middle age. She’s a clerical temp who fancies herself a playwright despite a slew of rejections from every arts foundation in North America. He’s an untenured theater professor unable to commit to his long-suffering Polish girlfriend.
They seem poised to drift until retirement when maturity is thrust upon them. Their father (Philip Bosco) begins smearing fecal frescoes on his bathroom wall, and they have little choice but to band together and care for him. In the process, they begin to dig their way out of the emotional ruts they’ve excavated for themselves.
The joy of the film is that it doesn’t try to die-cast this material into a three-act arc with character progression and surprise revelations doled out like clockwork. The story flows along as authentic life does, with awful moments, ridiculous ones and others somewhere in between, all arriving in their own good time.
Linney’s character is well meaning but hopelessly lacking in self-awareness, convinced that a few throw pillows and a lamp from Urban Outfitters will make dad’s dreary rest home room more comfortable. Hoffman is a grumpy near-recluse who would probably be content to die unnoticed in his book-strewn house; the family troubles that draw him out of himself become his unexpected lifeline.
The stars underplay their roles masterfully. We learn just enough about their childhoods to understand why they chose callings that allow them to retreat into fantasy rather than cope with the messy, bruising, disappointing scuffle of grown-up life. Jenkins isn’t flippant about their troubles, but she never cries crocodile tears over them, either. When Wendy has a drama-queen moment, keening, “We’re horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible people,” Jenkins sees the laughs on the other side of that pain.
Eventually, she lets Jon and Wendy see them, too. Most of the film takes place in wintry, grim upstate New York, but the guardedly hopeful fade-out occurs the following spring as Jon and Wendy ease out of their deep-freeze alienation and start over. The film is savagely funny about the indignities of old age, yet optimistic that it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186