21 January 2013

Tamara Jenkins's The Savages (2007)

There are three main characters in Tamara Jenkins's The Savages: 80-year-old father Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco), his 39-year-old daughter Wendy (Laura Linney), and his 42-year-old son Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Lenny lives in the retirement community of Sun City, Arizona, with his partner. He is developing dementia.

Wendy works as a temp but aspires to be a successful playwright ('inspired by the work of Jean Genet, the cartoons of Lynda Barry and the family dramas of Eugene O’Neill') and frequently applies for grants. She is in an unsatisfying relationship with Larry, a married man thirteen years her senior. She lives in a tiny appartment in New York City and appears to be mildly addicted to prescription drugs. She is hungry for human contact, and finds consolation in lying: her cervical smear test is clear, but she tells Larry that there are irregularities; and she is turned down for a Guggenheim Trust award but tells Jon she was successful.

Jon is a professor at a university in Buffalo, upstate New York, where he teaches drama. He has been in a relationship with the Polish Kasia, but she has to leave as her visa has expired and he can't see his way to marrying her, and unfortunately he can only cry when eggs are cooked. He specializes in Brecht, and has for some time been writing a critical work on him. Brecht is very appropriate: Brecht's emphasis on emotional detachment has a parallel with Jon's emotional detachment; and at the end, we learn that he is to read a paper called 'No Laughing Matter: Dark ['Black' in the original filmscript] Comedy in the Plays of Bertolt Brecht' – 'dark comedy' would be an accurate description of this movie.

The three Savages have not exactly got on well in the past – there are various references to their father's abuse, particularly of Jon: tellingly (and of course humorously), Wendy explains to her befuddled father that Jon is not a medical doctor but a PhD, a drama professor, 'like..."Theatre of Social Unrest"'. But now that Lenny's mind is going, added to which his partner has died and he is effectively homeless and must be found somewhere appropriate to live, it is time for Wendy and Jon to try and forget the sibling rivalry and take a reality check in terms of their late developing maturity.

Near the end of the film, after Lenny had been dead some months, Jon and Wendy seem to have forgotten their differences and to be happier in themselves. They both watch the rehearsal of  Wendy's play, 'Wake Me When It's Over', in which she's fictionalized some autobiographical elements, such as Jon's father beating him up. There are no frying eggs around, but Jon actually cries: there has obviously been some development in him, and shortly after he reveals that he's reading his paper in Poland so he'll be seeing Kasia. It appears that Wendy has (wisely) split with Larry, although she's equipped Marley – his dog he was going to put down – with a mechanical contraption instead of her useless hind legs. Wendy always did seem to get on better with animals than with humans.

This is an intelligent movie about intelligent, flawed people.

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