The Savages October 17, 2015
The Savages are not the family Sherwood Schwartz wanted us to see back in the 1970s. They are emotionally stunted, easily irritable, and alarmingly contemptuous; to them, a healthy human relationship is the equivalent of a Healthy Choice frozen dinner, unstable, unpredictable, and a little bit plasticky.
It’s not the fault of the now-grown Savage children, Wendy (Laura Linney) and Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who weren’t born this way but were instead made this way. The blame spotlight should be shone onto their father, Lenny (Philip Bosco), and their mother, who left the family when the kids were old enough to feel the pain of such a desertion. Though never outrightly said, it is suggested that Lenny abused his children all during the growing up process — and when we meet them for the first time, we can near instantly see the damage.
Wendy, 39, has never experienced a normal relationship, and is currently dawdling in one with a married man thirteen years her senior (Peter Friedman). She pops pills, tells herself that her temp job will eventually lead to her dream as a playwright, and won’t admit that, by 39, most people have figured out what they’re doing with their lives.
Jon, hapless and derisive, is a college professor who somewhat successfully writes on the side; his life would be more fulfilling, though, if he knew how to commit to someone. He’s dated the same woman (Cara Seymour) for several years but can’t seem to trust her, not because of anything she’s done but because his formative years were never stable enough to ensure an enduring faith.
So when Wendy and Jon receive a call that the father they thought they had cut out of their lives is in the grips of heavy dementia (his latest hobby is writing on the walls with his own shit), they hesitantly travel down to his barely there living quarters and figure out just what they’re going to do with him (Wendy is leaning toward luxurious assisted living; Jon berates her for ignoring the fact that all the luxuries are there for the guilty family members). In the process of his declining health do the siblings begin to come to terms with just how unstable their lives are — and, in a twist of fate, the worse things get, the better their self-acceptance becomes.
The second feature of Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills), The Savages is a tragicomedy of epic proportions, so exhaustively painful it’s a wonder that we ever find the time to laugh. So perceptive is her writing that we can’t help but look at ourselves and wonder just how much our childhood shaped us, how realistic we are at seeing ourselves in adult form. Wendy and Jon are so lost that their ability to put on a brave face is really something; as the eventual, expected death arrives at the end of the film, we smile as the loss of something scarring gives them the courage to move forward and pursue the interests they’ve never been able to grasp out of incessant fear. Linney and Hoffman bring a melancholy that seems on the verge of picking up.
Though slightly overlong and narratively aimless, The Savages is a dark comedy that hits us where it hurts and still sees the humor in everyday hardship. Life isn’t always funny — maybe it’s sadder than we’d like to admit — but when a laugh comes, it isn’t hard to want to grab onto it and make it last forever. Lord knows Wendy and Jon need it. B