“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.