Friday, March 4, 2011

Jenkins & Co.

As things often do, a 2007 film by writer-director Tamara Jenkins got past me when it was first released. But as I discovered, The Savages was another of those casual picks from the library shelves that turned out to be pure gold. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and garnered two Academy Award nominations, one for Best Actress (Laura Linney) and another for Best Original Screenplay (Jenkins). Philip Seymour Hoffman won four different best actor awards for his performance and in the opinion of many Philip Bosco’s performance is equally celebrated. The Savages is one of those movies that will last as an example of high-quality filmmaking.

Hoffman and Linney play a not particularly close brother and sister faced with the problem of an abusive father whom neither has seen for twenty years but who suddenly requires their care. Suffering from dementia and forced out of his home, the problem of what to do with him is dropped suddenly into the already troubled lives of his two children, Jon (Hoffman) and Wendy (Linney).

The screenplay has all the qualities we look for in good movies: humor, heartbreak, the offbeat and a large dose of very fine writing. Combine that screenplay with intelligent direction and three masterful performances from Hoffman, Linney and Philip Bosco and you have good reason why The Savages appeared on fifteen Top 10 lists the year it was released.

The movie is not strictly about the problems of aging—though Jenkins treats us to some ugly moments of that condition. The opening scenes in an Arizona retirement community painted in pastels and sunshine and running on golf carts and Lawrence Welk are wonderful, offering a perfect contrast to later scenes in a snow blanketed second-rate nursing home in Buffalo. But the writer-director is more interested in how caring for an abusive and demented father affects a dysfunctional brother and sister and how unforeseen responsibilities alter the jealousies and distrust that have been their history.

Several scenes in The Savages could be used as how-to lessons in film school but two in particular deserve mention. Brother and sister attempt one of those ‘caring for the elderly’ classes but arrive late and draw the immediate attention of a bossy ‘teacher’ who without missing a beat embarrasses the two mercilessly. As they stand in the back unsure what to do, nibbling cookies from a tray, the teacher informs them in a loud voice that refreshments are not being served yet. In a brilliant touch they sheepishly replace their half-eaten cookies on the tray.

In a later near-violent scene in the car brother and sister scream and berate each other. Foreseeing no end to the clamor and not really concerned, the father turns off his hearing aid and pulls the hood of his coat over his head. Another master touch.

There is so much that is good in this movie, had it not been so late I would have played it a second time. That will have to wait for another day. As for the actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman is proving himself to be one of the best of his generation. As for Laura Linney, she and Hoffman work together like saw and hammer. Her performance in this movie brought only her third Academy Award nomination. And Philip Bosco? Another beautifully shaded and subtle performance from a long proven actor.

Granted The Savages is a dark story but it has something for us all in its examination of aging, pride, jealousy, cynicism and ultimately the workings of that ancient dynamic, family. However you manage your movie viewing, put this one on your playlist.


  1. Was aware of the film when it was released but it also slipped by me. Surely it will show on one of the 400 channels I pay highly for each month. Yes, good actors all. And when Dee worked on a film with Laura Linney she proved approachable and a nice person--all too rare among the Hollywood elite. Good post.

  2. Whoa. Raw nerve touched here. I just had flashbacks of scenes between my brother and myself when my dad died. Maybe I ought to view this film, huh?

  3. Masterful film, really... it is high on my list.


About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America