Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Savages

By Elise Nakhnikian

One of the conundrums that must keep Hollywood executives up at night is that happy endings have to be earned.

If you start your big, dumb, would-be blockbuster with one-dimensional characters in clichéd situations and sand off any remaining edges with script doctors and test screenings, your feel-good ending feels as tacked-on as the donkey’s tail in that old children’s game. To deliver a truly happy ending, you have to hit your emotional marks along the way, getting the details right. And when it comes to doing that, the suits could learn a thing or two from The Savages.

A classic character-driven dramedy, writer-director Tamara Jenkins’ second feature doesn’t sound like much on paper: Two contentious siblings on the cusp of middle age take charge of their estranged father’s life when he develops dementia. In the process of caring for him, they reconnect with each other and begin to take more responsibility for their own lives.

It’s the details that guide this arrow to the bullseye. Jenkins and her colleagues get almost everything just right, from the texture of daily life to the unceremonious arrival of death. Seemingly insignificant incidents or people sometimes loom into the foreground, while “big” moments turn out to be surprisingly anticlimactic. And anything can trigger a meltdown.

Jenkins aims at common experiences that are still taboo enough, even in our talky culture, to make most of us feel alone when we experience them. Part of the pleasure this movie provides is the release of laughing with a theater full of strangers at dementia, death, sibling rivalry, and the challenge of caring for an aging parent who never cared all that well for you.

The humorous yet humanistic tone is set with the Busby Berkeley-esque opener, in which an energetic group of elderly women in cheerleader costumes do a routine involving a row of aggressively trimmed hedges in Sun City. It’s fun to see the filmmakers gently send up this sunny American vision of “retirement living,” golf carts forever moseying across its featureless landscape. It’s also poignant to see the contrast between that façade and the misery inside the bright and tidy Sun City home of Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco).

But none of this would have worked if the movie were not so brilliantly cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Jon Savage, Laura Linney as his sister Wendy, and Bosco as their father all do astonishing work, making these prickly people irresistible to watch and impossible not to empathize with. A few of the minor characters – notably Gbenga Akinnagbe as an achingly kind nursing assistant in the nursing home where Lenny winds up – also make indelible impressions.

When the movie starts, Wendy is stuck in a self-made trap, carrying on an affair with a married man while perpetually reworking her unproduced “subversive, semi-autobiographical play.” Jon is more outwardly successful, holding down a responsible job as a drama professor and living with a woman whose rightness for him shines through in every moment of their brief shared screen time. But Jon is the flip side to his melodramatic sister. While she always wants to talk about her feelings, he never wants to deal with his own – or anyone else’s.

The actors find inventive ways to telegraph Wendy’s neurosis, Jon’s stoicism, and the unresolved trauma and barely suppressed rage that feed both. Jenkins empathizes with her characters, but, like a good parent, she doesn’t indulge their bad habits. And slowly but surely, she leads them out of their trough of stasis and self-pity.

Jenkins’s husband, Jim Taylor, is Alexander Payne’s writing partner. He and Payne are also the executive producers of this movie, and it’s a good fit. Like the best of Payne and Taylor’s collaborations – Citizen Ruth, Election, Sideways The Savages finds humor and pathos in the human condition, especially our weaknesses and the lengths we go to in trying to cover them up.

When that’s your playing field and you get the details right – and when your players are actors of this caliber – you don’t have to run a scene long to make your point. Jenkins, whose first feature was the equally original and authentic-feeling Slums of Beverly Hills, intersperses seconds-long snippets with longer scenes to capture things like the cold comfort of watching old movies in a cheerless hotel room, the casual cruelty of a blended family in crisis, and the saccharine fantasy world of nursing home marketing. And when Wendy and Jon have their ultimate in a series of vicious verbal smack-downs, we hear just enough to know what they’re saying and what’s behind the heat. Then they get into a car with their father, and the camera shifts to his point of view as he turns off his hearing aid and tunes them out, looking out the window with a mixture of sorrow and irritation.

The Savages never beats you over the head with too much information. Instead, it shows enough to make you believe in a situation, laugh out loud at the home truths it reveals, and root for an ending that leaves you room to hope about people you’ve come to care about.

And there you have it, the formula for a good comic drama. Simple, right? But it takes an artist to make it look this easy.

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