Review: “The Savages” (2007)

“The Savages” is so credible — sometimes mortifyingly so — in its depictions of nursing homes and elderly parents that it could be a documentary. That is to be expected, since Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman are the kind of relatable actors who look and act like actual human beings. They act in ways that make it seem like they aren’t acting at all, but going through the motions of life as the script prescribes. “The Savages,” an awkward gem, requires them to play caregivers to the aging father, Lenny (Philip Bosco), who never cared very much for them. Wendy and Jon Savage are not prepared for this, but who is? Spoon-feeding your father applesauce while he lies, shrunken and dopey, in a hospital bed is unnatural. 

There aren’t many films that endeavor to capture the undignified end as it is. Rosey films like “The Notebook” romanticize senility, turn dementia into fodder for romantic drama or melodrama. There are sloppy crocodile tears and wailing when a parent, grandparent or spouse stops recognizing loved ones. In “The Savages,” director Tamara Jenkins sidesteps this road. She romanticizes nothing, intuiting that melodrama is something the family of a disabled elderly person does not have time for. It’s hard to cling and weep when nurses keep changing diapers. Jenkins emphasizes the small details that tell the emotional story underneath, like the way Wendy insists on decorating her father’s room with knicknacks even though he could care less. She argues tearfully with Jon (Hoffman) that Lenny should go into the best facility they can afford; he observes pragmatically that their father won’t know the difference anyway and he was a terrible father, so why waste the money. There’s no drama in this scene, only the truth that the drastic change in Lenny’s life will affect theirs.

Most of “The Savages” plays out in Lenny’s facility, where he devolves from a hateful misanthrope to more or less an infant. It sometimes happens this way in such places, the devolution from adult to child. There’s something intrinsically unsettling about this end-of-life process. Jenkins doesn’t highlight the transformation in any splashy way; this only serves to make it more real. Bosco manages both aspects of Lenny quite capably. Lenny’s not a nice man, never was, but watching the spirit seep out of him is sad. Wendy, a playwright living in New York City, and Jon, a professor/author from Buffalo, must to decide what to do with Lenny after his girlfriend dies and he’s unable to live alone. He’s moved from Arizona, cursing and spitting, to a place in Buffalo so they can visit him. Wendy and Jon don’t want to visit him, and when they do they feel as twitchy and out of place as we all do in nursing homes. Wendy takes the couch at Jon’s place and notes his odd relationship with his girlfriend — he won’t marry her to keep her from being deported, but he cries when she cooks him breakfast (trust Hoffman to make this seem touching, not weird). Wendy’s own romantic life is mired in a pointless affair with a married man (Peter Friedman), and her kiss with a kind nurse (Gbenga Akinnagbe) ends in disappointment. Still, the more Lenny’s situation draws Wendy and Jon together, the more they realize how his abuse stunted them. They don’t speak of this in grand terms; it’s more of a gradual realization that bonds them when they aren’t looking. 

“The Savages” is Jenkins’ second “unconvential” film. The first, “Slums of Beverly Hills,” centered on the Abromowitz clan, a nomadic family held together by shared neuroses. It’s the same with Wendy and Jon Savage. Perhaps only together could they handle bearing witness to the reality of dying: the bedpans and diapers, the pills dissolved into pudding cups, the silent moments that come after talking is pointless, the wait for some kind of end. When it comes in “The Savages,” Wendy can only ask: “Is that it?” It might sound callous, but to those of us who have watched an elderly loved one die with a whimper and not a bang, it’s a home truth that’s frustrating and beautiful in its own way. 

Grade: A

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9 Responses

  1. Great pick; LOVE this movie!!!

    Laura Linney really is one of the most underrated actresses of our generation – even with 3 Oscar nominations. She’s way overdue.

    And I totally agree with every point you made. As you can tell, I’m really excited and unleashed my enthusiasm here.

  2. I totally agree to your evaluation of the film The Savages. It certainly was a minor gem that not many people might have got acquainted to. In fact, had Hoffman & Laura Linney not been part of it, the film might very well have been lost from public conscience. Their naturalistic acting added strong layers of poignancy and realism to this “unconventional” and very well-made film.

  3. Ever since I started working at a retirement home, I find my mind recalling scenes from this film.

  4. I was sideswiped by the “Black comedy” solondz-esque vibe that was all over the box and synopses when I decided to watch this one. No doubt it was a drama tour-de-force, but it was just too grim to really enjoy for me.

  5. YAY love love loved this, glad people agree. Hoffman is awesome, and so underappreciated.

    • @ Marshall — Unleash away! There’s a shortage of enthusiasm these days, I think. Linney is certainly a national treasure. She’s good at whatever she does — TV, made-for-TV movies, actual movies.

      @ Shubhajit — This is a grim film, as PFR says below, but I enjoyed it for that reason. It’s very realistic and not flowery — it doesn’t pull any punches.

      @ CFFC — Anyone who works in a retirement home deserves a medal. I can see how “The Savages” is almost like a snapshot of what you do every day.

      @ Paragraph — The trailer really pushed the comedy, so it was a little surprising to get in the theater and realize the film is kind of a balance of drama and comedy. It is grim and sad, so I don’t watch it every day, but I appreciate that someone made a movie about the end of life that shows what it is really like for so many senior citizens.

      @ 5plitreel — Hoffman and Linney in one movie is like a dream come true. They play off each other so well.

  6. This was one of my favourites from ’07. I thought it to be very powerful precisely because of its authenticity and the awkward emotions that result from the frustrating situation the characters are going through. Very good review.

  7. Great review! I have been curious about this movie — I think it has been in my Netflix queue for a while but it’s somewhere in the middle of the pack. Gonna have to give it a boost near the top after reading this.

    • @ Edgar — It’s the best movie I’ve seen yet that deals with nursing homes and caring for elderly parents. Thank God nobody let Nicholas Sparks TOUCH the screenplay.

      @ Eric — “The Savages” is definitely worth a viewing as long as you don’t believe the trailer that it’s a “laugh-out-loud” comedy. It has its moments, but it’s more comedy based on awkwardness.

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