The Reeler


November 28, 2007

The Savages

Jenkins gives her story of siblings, bad dads and loss a quasi-fairy tale twist

In a welcome zap of cultural synergy, this week the Gallery Met opens an exhibit of artworks inspired by Hansel and Gretel, just in time to hold the sweaty, sibling hand of The Savages, Tamara Jenkins's warm, itchy, woolen jumper of a family film, as it sidles into the holiday fare fray.

Writer and director Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills) has likened her story of an estranged brother and sister stumbling together to take care of their even more estranged (and dementia-addled) father to that of the young, lost, German quasi-orphans. More middle-aged than middle ages, Wendy (Laura Linney) and Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) nevertheless face down winged demons, a scary, maw-mouthed beast and the seventh circle of hell -- they just happen to take the form of air travel with the aged, the most tenaciously unrepentant deadbeat dad this side of Michael Lohan and a little lakeside town I like to call “Barfalo.”

"Your life is more portable than mine," Jon says -- harassed, stoic and perpetually loaded for self-loathing bear -- when it comes time to divvy up the responsibility for their father Lenny (Philip Bosco), whose girlfriend's death in their Arizona home brings push to shove. Jon, a drama professor specializing in Brecht, is arguing for Wendy's relocation to his home in Buffalo, where they situate Lenny in a nursing home (perfectly, depressingly trussed up with stapled decorations, like a Montessori kindergarten). But what Brother Courage means by portable is "empty," "inane," and perhaps even "hopeless"; Wendy is the errant little sister, an office supply-stealing temp with playwriting aspirations who feathers her wee, disappointing life with little lies about her health, her future and her accomplishments.

Jon picks at Wendy, Wendy picks at her nails and both try not to look directly into the void that is their dying father; an ugly specter of piss and shit, Lenny is a man reduced to his bodily functions and perhaps his most dangerous orifice, his mouth. Linney, not the most obvious choice for a tricky, good-hearted super-flake like Wendy, seems to have whittled herself into a hot new body, the better to show off both her lithe, bright-eyed abilities as a physical comedienne and a series of age-inappropriate outfits. Hoffman, by contrast, leads with his high, round belly -- a tool he seems to be able to wield and sheath at will -- suggesting decades' worth of unpalatable winter stores. He is practically pregnant with issues, they enter the room before he does, belying his gruff, unflappable façade.

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In a way Jon is the more interesting character, but Jenkins skews the focus onto Wendy, who overcompensates in tending for the failed father, much to her brother's chagrin. Linney and Hoffman have a tremendously rewarding, difficult rapport, their serve and volley of freighted dialogue made literal during a scene in which Jon pulls a muscle one swipe into a tennis game; having made caring a competitive sport the way only siblings can, the tender, absurd laugh they share as Wendy wrangles her brother into his stress-relieving harness is a hopeful sign of surrender, or at least détente, in the struggle to let both their father and his damage go. Jenkins decides, wisely, to let her actors play as they lay for the most part, though the handheld, ready-freddy camera moves keep the energy at a constant, if quirky, pace. Stephen Trask's score is another happy binding agent, lilting, a little loopy and at times reminiscent of Jon Brion's work with PT Anderson.

More a series of snapshots than family portrait, one figure is conspicuously missing from the frame: the Mother Savage. Shrugged off in a single line, her handling (as well, to some extent, as that of Lenny, who bears allusions to misbehavior that are vague at best) is symptomatic of the parental misfire in a series of recent adult sibling movies, including The Darjeeling Limited and Margot at the Wedding. In each case, the dysfunction, alienation and compulsive self-medication of the children begs the question of parentage, which the directors keep stubbornly at bay, tapping and taking for granted a rich well of backstory that they haven’t sufficiently filled. The Savage children are wrecked by the smallest human kindnesses -- Jon cries every time his girlfriend makes him breakfast, Wendy lunges for a man who pays her a compliment -- and especially in a film that itself raises the issue, the viewer might feel somewhat cheated by the avoidance of the question: Who did this to you?

Jenkins clinches her characters in a compelling and all-too-relatable circumstance, but neither one gets enough room to drop emotional roots, or convincingly reach for the sky; instead the growth is lateral -- impressive, but lateral. On the other hand, and as Jenkins cleverly acknowledges within the film ("You were going to explain the difference between plot and narrative," one of Jon's students chirps), adopting a fairy tale trope may be the appropriate choice for this new breed of grown-up allegory. Parents are traditionally shadowy figures in children's storytelling, from the Grimms to Peanuts, their absence at once liberating and terrifying, their loss the imperative for a new journey.

As a generation of Grups, still completely fucked up and completely unprepared, begins to face such losses, perhaps there is comfort to be found in watching that childish dichotomy of parentless-ness -- it's the ultimate fantasy and the worst thing you can imagine -- play out on screen with the same redactions in place. Insert your own folks, and your own fears, here.

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