Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Dec 19, 2007 5:43 pm 
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Family reunion

If you remember Jenkins' 1998 Slums of Beverly Hills, you'll know that her family portraits are catalogs of dysfunction. This time she looks at how a family deals with decline and death. If that puts you off, read no further. This isn't a fun watch. But it's honest, observant, smart, and it has an ending so satisfying it makes all the bad times and harshness seem worthwhile.

The title is a play on words, underscored by making "the" tiny in the publicity. The principals in this movie start out seriously compromised in the areas of kindness and civility, never more so than with each other. And if you call them "the Savages" that's ironic, because they're anything but a family. Wendy (Laury Linney) and Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are squabbling siblings who get stuck with helping out their demented dad Lennie (Philip Bosco), who was mean to them when they were kids, and whom they haven't even seen for years. Their mom altogether disappeared when they were still very young. Lennie's living out in Arizona somewhere, in a land of sun-bleached emptiness and cactus-adorned modern dwellings and overweight women. He starts behaving peculiarly, and his longtime girlfriend dies. Jon and Wendy are forced to get together and go to Arizona, where they learn that legally the girlfriend's family owes Lennie nothing, and they're already selling the house.

Wendy has to stay and watch Lennie, who's been hospitalized and is detected to have signs of full-on Parkinson's disease and accompanying dementia, while Jon goes back to Buffalo and looks around for a nursing home. He's a college teacher specializing in that uncompromising feel-bad dramatist, Bertolt Brecht. He's got to finish a book on Brecht he's been working on too long, and though he seems to have his feet on the ground, he does not appear to be a happy fellow. He cannot commit to his Polish girlfriend so she is going to have to return to Warsaw. Wendy is theatrical in her inclinations too, but her status is more ephemeral. She survives on temp jobs while penning unproduced plays and applying for grants she never receives, consoling herself with a married boyfriend named Larry (Peter Friedman). Her cat and Larry's dog figure prominently in the plot, and so does her ficus, which does badly in her absence. She seems inordinately fond of prescription drugs, and shamelessly steals some from the medicine cabinet of Lennie's deceased girlfriend. Painkillers, SSRI's, Xanax--she likes them all. We don't know much about what it was like for Wendy and Jon growing up, but since we see Lennie yell at them the minute he sees them, we can guess. It's no wonder they're essentially still getting started in middle age.

Jenkins works within a narrow palette but her observations are acute. She's interested not just in the family details, the tough decisions about nursing care, interment plans, the pull between convenience and guilt, or about how all this stuff forces Wendy and Philip to cooperate with each other and ultimately grow closer as well as find love in their hearts for their father. She also observes the culture of aging, the senior centers where 70- or 80-somethings in uniform do cheer-leading stunts, or sing in restaurants, or delude themselves with hopes of happiness and green grass forever. She shows the "class" levels of retirement homes and above all she looks at the range of meannesses and kindnesses among "health care professionals" and "caregivers." Wendy even starts flirting with a particularly nice male nurse, Jimmy (Gbenga Akinnagbe). Jenkins' attention to detail comes in the way Wendy mistakes him for Jamaican (he, and the actor, are Nigerian-born). He talks to her, and reads her play, and likes it.

Developments follow, some inevitable, others surprising. Jenkins has made the ending positive in such specific and sensible ways that it's as beievable as it is positive--and also quirky, and at one point, surprising. There is an admirable level of imagination to match the attention paid to contemporary detail.

The world of The Savages isn't fun, but it's funny, while remaining absolutely free of any visible reaching for laughs or other effect. If anyone's being manipulated the strings don't show. Linney, Hoffman, and Bosco see to that. But thanks to the keen observation of Tamara Jenkins, this is a lot more than an acting fest. It's one of the most keenly observed American films of the year.

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