The Savages ***1/2
Directed by Tamara Jenkins
"The Savages" was one of the most talked about films at this year's Sundance Film Festival. When I did that little festival of Sundance films at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, it was neglected from the lineup probably because it got a distributor right away, and a release date very soon-Fox Searchlight has this up for a release at the end of December. And it deserves the acclaim that it got-this is a fresh, bleak, and very moving film about a brother and a sister-not estranged, but simply coming to terms with the fact that tragedy is about to come into their lives.
With a cast like Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, it's hard to see how wrong could come out of the finished product. Linney and Hoffman play Wendy and Jon Savage, a brother and sister who are vast opposites. Wendy has her life in some kind of order, although she is hoping for grant money to continue work on an semi-autobiographical play. In the meantime she does temp work, and has an affair with her married landlord. Jon is a teacher of theatre at a college in Buffalo, and he's working on a book on a famous playwright. The two of them end up getting together after they learn that their father Lenny's girlfriend has passed away, and he needs someone to live. Jon wants to put his father in a nursing home after they find out that he has pre signs of dementia, and Wendy agrees to this but begins to feel bad about how they are leaving their old man-who never really did give a damn about them their entire lives.
The rest of the film explores many different factors-their relationships with their father, their relationships with various love interests, and their relationships with themselves. And it's all done in a realistic and human way, never making fun of the characters. I speak of this because the movie begins on a rather "quirky" level-it starts off whole a bunch of little old ladies dancing on a lawn, which the title appears on the screen. It's supposed to be irony, but its almost like the main credits of "Little Miss Sunshine" when the word SUNSHINE appears right on Steve Carrell's crying face. The film could have went onto a different level-making it more of a comedy than a human drama, but I like the direction it went. It had a few bits of humor-Hoffman gets injured somehow at one point, they make a few jokes about the war on terror and 9/11-but for the most part this is a rather bleak and somewhat depressing experience. And I like how even though Jon and Wendy may not be having the best times in their lives, we never look down at them at all. They are depicted as rather heroic instead of sad saps. And I admired that. We also don't get into "love life" cliches, and the three love interests that are mentioned throughout don't end in a Hollywood way, but all end on a note of no real closure, much like life.
Obviously Hoffman and Linney give terrific performances, almost pitch perfect. Hoffman continues to add to his impressive roster, and he is easily making a name as an actor who will be legendary, and Linney is an underappriciated beauty that also has a problem doing wrong. And I like how Tamara Jenkins never made this a film about an estranged brother and sister. There is no mention that Jon and Wendy Savage had a falling out. This is just a time where they need to come together and face tragic events, and Hoffman and Linney have the nice chemistry of a real brother and sister-not that I can relate, but I've seen things.