Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Writer and director Tamara Jenkinss second feature film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year. It is the second time she has invested an almost autobiographical energy into her work.
Her first film, The Slums of Beverley Hills (1998) was an account of an adolescent female broke and insecure in Los Angles. It wasnt a direct retelling of her parents divorce and the uneven split of her family but it raised similar issues. This time around Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney star as Jon and Wendy Savage, the dysfunctional siblings confronted by their fathers dependence and eventual death. Jon, like Jenkinss brother, is a professor of theatre and Wendy is a playwright on the edge. So far so similar, but thats as far as it goes.
Both parties are dissatisfied with their lives. Wendy feels she has failed as an artist and is having an affair with her randy neighbour, Larry (Peter Friedman), and his dog. Jon is suffering from writers block and inching closer to losing his Polish girlfriend back to her native land. Neither wants to see the other despite both living close by in New York. The discovery that their father has dementia requires them to come together. They lie to each other to protect their newly fragile emotional states and its the keenly observed nuances of familial relationships, those similarities and differences we allow or dont allow ourselves to see that make this so entertaining.
In one particularly striking sequence, Larry is given the opportunity to host a screening at his nursing home. Unfortunately, surrounded by an almost exclusively immigrant staff and non-Caucasian guests, his selection, The Jazz Singer, is something of a faux pas. Linney then gives a remarkably-balanced reaction between genuine humiliation, glib apology and flippant error. She vehemently believes that there is another, better care facility for her father as she is blinded by the affected whiteness. She belittles the thoughts of a friendly carer, referring to them as Jamaican folklore when he is ostentatiously a specialist and of African heritage. Such a blas and offhand delivery draws to our attention to the characters mild hypocrisy and dangerous limitations of self awareness.
Hoffman singles out the pains of the ageing body after a tennis accident leaves him in muscular agony. He straps his head into a sling to ease the strain on his neck and shoulders and wryly lampoons the situation. At times his snarl and wrinkled brow has a bitterness reminiscent of Jack Nicholson. His matter-of-fact attitude wilts as his self-reflection develops; his eyes are poignantly opened to his own middle age as he deals with his fathers final days.
The script also references Brecht, Sam Shepard and Proust but you dont have to keep up with the allusions to stay afloat. Small but powerful reminders of the United States climate of fear occur throughout the film. The discourse of Terror Alerts is shown to have permeated the popular parlance when Wendy describes her father smearing faeces on the bathroom wall. This a great credit to Jenkinss writing. She is able to situate an audience brilliantly in a time and place but also in very specific regressive emotional state of mind.
Philip Bosco also gives a wonderfully dry, affectionate performance as the lost and grumpy paternal figure. He holds the intelligent and honest dark comedy of animosity and compassion together.
The Savages is a quirkless but funny reminder to us all on the matter of our mortality and the sneaking past of all our potential.