By Andrea Warner
The Savages has moments great and good, but ends up being just okay. It sincerely wants to be more. With its wonderful cast, compelling subject, and some clever dialogue, it should be.
Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman are Wendy and John Savage, estranged siblings struggling to extract themselves from the damage of their fractious childhood. The pair is reunited when they must care for an abusive father who abandoned them, and cope with his recently diagnosed dementia.
The film plunks us down into the middle of the siblings’ individual lives and through a series of scenes that feel more like vignettes, the audience is invited inside a series of uncomfortable, painful, and cathartic family moments.
Wendy Savage is a woman clinging to what’s left of her dignity as she grapples with her failures as a playwright, an affair with a married man, and the petty lies that fill out her existence.
In particular, the bond Wendy forms with one of her father’s nurses allows us to understand just how lonely her life has been. Linney does a fantastic job providing glimpses beneath Wendy’s fragile exterior, conveying Wendy’s depression and intelligence with warmth and humanity.
The delighted and amazed glow on Linney’s face as Wendy uncovers her father’s secret suitcase filled with photos and paintings from her childhood reminds us yet again of what a commanding and authentic actress Linney is.
Hoffman is a powerful counterpart, making as much as he can out of a leaner role than Linney as the older, more “successful” brother. John Savage is a doctor of philosophy who teaches theater in Buffalo, unable to commit to marrying the woman he loves and thus saving her from deportation.
Almost all this emotional undoing happens in the background of the film, with the audience meeting the Krakow-bound Kasia only once, but it’s the meat of John’s dysfunction. Hoffman is emotional and subtle, and adds layers to a role that, in less experienced hands, may have been a bit one-note.
The sibling relationship between Hoffman and Linney feels real. A lovely scene between them (one of many) shows Wendy waking up in the middle of the night to hear John on the phone with Kasia. Hoffman’s framed in the light of the open door to the bathroom, sitting on top of the closed toilet seat, weeping, as Wendy watches pretending to be asleep. The moment is quiet, rich, and poignant with the familial bond of siblings.
Philip Bosco is Lenny Savage, the backbone of his children’s neuroses. Gruff and quick-tempered, it’s easy to imagine the childhood horrors he inflicted upon his kids before bolting. An independent and stubborn man, Lenny inspires mixed emotions as we witness him cope with the humiliations of old age.
Bosco does wonders with this unpleasant role — Lenny’s kind of a prick, as the character himself would say — and as we watch him interact with his children as they do their best to care for him, we’re touched by his rare moments of softness.
The script from writer/director Tamara Jenkins (The Slums of Beverly Hills) offers glimpses into this dysfunctional family, and brings up interesting questions about love, obligation, regret, and guilt, but always from a frustrating distance.
The performances are top-notch and the cast deserves better than a series of scenes that fail to create a cohesive film. The audience is never allowed enough successive moments to build deeper relationships with the characters — we’re permitted to watch them go through the ups and downs of the quiet re-building of their lives, but we’re never really permitted to care too deeply about them.
Partly, this is dialogue-related. This is a talky movie, full of black humor and wit, and some incredible misfires. One example has Lenny reacting to a movie from his youth, standing up and railing against his own abusive father. This feels unnecessary and trite — Wendy and John don’t react in any way to this revelation, and without it serving some momentum to the story, the moment falls flat. Why throw in 30 seconds of exposition just to create some sympathy for Lenny?
Additionally, some lines — in some cases entire scenes — remind one of dialogue that student filmmakers cling to because they can’t bear to edit their own work. The Savages running time is almost two hours, but 100 minutes would have been sufficient. A leaner film would have intensified the impact, and created a stronger more cohesive picture.
Perhaps this should-have-been-good film reveals everything in its title. The Savages wears its ironic and winking heart on its sleeve, letting the strongest aspects linger right alongside its weakest without bothering to distinguish one from the other.