The wag who had suggested “Get a life, go to the movies” might have had “The Savages” in mind. This brilliant film by a relative newcomer is like life itself — delightful, tragic, vulgar, literate, exhilarating and irritating in turn.
Although writer-director Tamara Jenkins has some previous work to her credit (“Slums of Beverly Hills“), she bursts on the scene with this superbly entertaining, freewheeling, thought-provoking, first-rate film.
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, two of Hollywood’s finest, play a middle-aged brother and sister confronted with the sudden, life-changing need to take care of their elderly and dementia-stricken father (Philip Bosco), with whom they had little real contact previously.
The Savages are a strange, but very real bunch Jenkins’ writing hits home time and again, regardless of your own family history. There is outrageous humor and things said that you don’t usually hear in public, a sense of a grownup writer speaking through adult actors to an audience of equals. Nothing is sacred, everything goes, the communication is free and easy, but there is also genuine warmth and sincere humanity in the story.
Reminiscent of “Away from Her” (No. 1 on my top 10 for the year) in its subject, sincerity, intelligence and unpretentious integrity, “The Savages” provides both entertainment and a memorable experience.
The fun begins with the beginning, a grotesquely and splendidly choreographed dance number that creates a happy dislocation — you have no idea where you are and what’s happening. Soon enough, the reality of the Arizona retirement “home” sinks in, but Jenkins maintains the suspense, the unpredictable nature of the story throughout — until near the end of “The Savages,” when the film sags a bit.
Hoffman and Linney further illuminate an already rich, intelligent script. As the troubled adult siblings, with their complicated lives and relationship, they are so real that you will think of them as people you have known, but now you really find out about their innermost secrets.
The Hoffman character is a struggling, lonely academic, working hard but unsuccessfully to finish his book on “Oedipal Rage in Brecht.” There is a whole slew of inside jokes there, none essential to enjoyment of the film but serving as an extra, along with many other references, winks and subtexts. Linney plays a character who is a bundle of uncertainties and insecurities, and yet she remains real and viable, never a caricature.
Bosco, 77, plays a man of his own age, but in a vastly worse physical and mental state, with symptoms that are hard to watch. He is brilliant in presenting the reality of the situation, including a measure of humor, but without mocking the character.The entire large cast — with some fascinating characters, such as Gbenga Akinnagbe’s kind and strong night nurse — performs marvelously under Jenkins’ self-effacing direction.