There’s a speech by protagonist Jon Savage midway through Tamara Jenkins’ “The Savages” that essentially sums up the entire film. Upon being confronted with the issue of putting his father in a nursing home, Jon breaks down, and starts yelling words like “shit” and “piss” and “smells” and “death” to describe the sad truths of old age. In other words, it’s a drag.
At least that’s the wisdom “The Savages” brings to living with old age. In a sardonic attempt at humor and humanity, “Savages” winds up being a poignant and painfully accurate depiction of elderly care. A bit too painful, actually.
The story revolves around two estranged children reconnecting with their exiled-from-Arizona father, Lenny (Philip Bosco, TV’s “Damages”). Jon Savage (the outstanding Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Capote”) teaches classes on theater performance to get by while lazily working on his “novel” about Brecht, which seems to be going nowhere. Wendy Savage, (the also great Laura Linney, “Kinsey”) is the standard, unsuccessful New York temp making ends meet until she can get the desired fellowships and respect needed to be a noted playwright.
When Lenny is diagnosed with dementia not long before the death of his longtime girlfriend, Jon and Wendy must focus their lives on their father’s care. After returning to Buffalo, N.Y., Jon and Wendy come to terms with his failing health and must make hard choices about his well-being. This is where “Savages” raises some interesting but morbid issues.
Will Lenny be cremated or buried? Just how bad is his mental state? Can Jon and Wendy pull the plug when the time comes? Is this really all that funny? “Savages” presents some pressing, but all too heartbreaking considerations. The whole film holds a lazy tone and style – handheld camera work and naturalization included – hoping to bank on its reality to engage viewers with such a serious set of matters. But the ultimate effect is downright depressing.
By focusing an entire film on youth coping with death in hyper-accurate fashion, “Savages” will surely alienate most young viewers. Little moments of humor like Hoffman in a head sling or Linney’s affair with a middle-aged professor are all well and good, but the overall feeling here is bleak.
“Savages” may be some viewers’ cup of tea, though. Maybe watching an 80-year-old man lose his pants and expose his diapers on an airplane is hilarious. Or sad. Either way, the best reason to see this film is for the perfect acting. Hoffman’s and Linney’s characters are as brilliantly realized as always, and Bosco should be lauded for acting his own age when so many others in his age group refuse to (Jack Nicholson, anyone?).
The sight of a feeble, elderly man sinking deeper and deeper into hysteria is hard to watch, and the film might be too honest. There’s a lack of dignity on display here that hits hard for all parties involved. Getting older is rough, and “The Savages” is a telling, harsh reminder of that fact.
2.5 out of 5 stars
At the Michigan Theatre