Fractured-family indie dramas lack Bruckheimer’s bankroll, but they can be just as formulaic as any Jerry-rigged movie. Estranged and embittered siblings, crusty dads, artistically bankrupt pill poppers, depressed scholars — each as shopworn as a divorced, drunk cop with a second chance.
Writer-director Tamara Jenkins serves up every last family-chaos cliché in The Savages, as a squabbling brother and sister (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) seek care for their cantankerous father Lenny (Philip Bosco), who’s suffering from the onset of dementia. Its Oscar nominations prove not that the film rises above them, but that the Academy can be fooled.
Jenkins’ honored script isn’t terrible. It’s just so obvious and oversimplified, from Identikit indie quirkiness down to its black orderly moonlighting as the mythical sage that only exists in movies.
Also, after several showcases of similar mannerisms, Linney could trademark her showy sighs of exasperated women with sexual and artistic frustrations. Her Oscar nod speaks both to 2007’s lack of knockout female lead performances and how much the Academy falls back on past prestige.
Where The Savages discerns itself is in plainly stated moments of elderly vulnerability. Lenny’s helplessness resonates realistically as the sort that affects us, or our loved ones, in old age, whether it’s airline passengers staring as we’re wheeled down an aisle or, more graphically, a hygienic shutdown. These scenes suggest a deeper, richer story of the indignities of aging or caregiver crisis.
Instead, it’s a predictable story of putting differences aside, as Jon (Hoffman) and Wendy (Linney) must find a home for Lenny after his long-term girlfriend dies and her kids boot him out of their Arizona home.
Financially and mentally, Lenny can’t afford assisted living, too far gone for that type of independence. Nursing homes promote sunny situations that, deep down, Jon and Wendy know are hooey. Neither New Yorker is ready to take Lenny into their homes. Wendy is a would-be playwright sleeping with a married man. Jon’s obsessive scholar is depressed over a love affair.
Jon doesn’t want to mix it up with Wendy — get dad, get him settled, get out. Yet letting him go isn’t so easy for either sibling, especially not when Lenny has slivers of clarity where he seeks graciousness he never found, nor ever gave to his children. Bosco wisely plays Lenny not as an old cur seeking redemption, just as an old cur gone older who’ll take whatever peace he can get.
Writing and directing her first feature since 1998, Jenkins draws laughs from cringe comedy and physical gags. Jon and Wendy rudely pocketing cookies at a support-group meeting speaks to their selfishness. And Hoffman’s attempt at athleticism here is shorter-lived, but funnier, than in Along Came Polly and points to the actor’s greatness. Even immobilized in homemade traction after a neck injury, Hoffman reaches a dramatic apex that’s more profound than many of his peers.
Jenkins’ tack — family inspires, or delays, creativity — isn’t a new one, though, and there’s nothing in the final act of The Savages that you haven’t seen before and, in many cases, better.