The maturely humane, rueful tone of director/writer Tamara Jenkins' comedy The Savages, about the confused grown children of an elderly man facing dementia, is akin to Alexander Payne's About Schmidt and Sideways.
That's partly because Jenkins (The Slums of Beverly Hills) and Payne share a cohort — his writing partner, Jim Taylor, is her husband. (Payne and Taylor are this film's executive producers.) But they also share an aesthetic that is setting a standard for adult-oriented indie comedies — be smart and unsentimental, but be empathetic rather than sarcastic or ironically hip. Be real.
Jenkins certainly isn't pandering to her audience. The issue of dementia — in this case, the result of an onset of Parkinson's — isn't an easy one for comedy. To take it on, you have to believe you have something valuable to say about life and a pitch-perfect voice for saying it.
Finding that voice partly comes from choosing the right cast. Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman are primarily dramatic actors rather than comedic ones.
But both are so organically naturalistic — without making a fetish out of "method" — that they hardly ever stand in the way of their characters. They bring refreshing truth to their roles, which is what The Savages needs.
Linney is Wendy Savage, an unglamorous but not unattractive almost-40 New York City office temp struggling to become a playwright and having a joyless affair with a married man in her apartment building. Her older brother Jon (Hoffman) teaches literature at a college in cold, snowy Buffalo — he's slovenly, stressed-out about a writing project and unable to commit to a Polish woman who seems to love him.
Jon and Wendy seem to telepathically understand each other's melancholia and struggles with self-esteem, even when they quarrel. But they both have stopped caring about their estranged father Lenny (Philip Bosco), who has been living with his girlfriend in Arizona's Sun City. They're grateful for the distance.
As the film starts, Lenny's ill paramour dies and, since he isn't married and has no right to their home, he's being evicted by her daughter. He's clearly already ill, reacting to a home health worker's request to flush the toilet with a scatological act. So the Savage children are forced to find him a new home. They must go to Sun City and then shuffle off to Buffalo.
Bosco's Lenny is so shorn of cliches he's actually scary — we don't know what to expect because there's nothing in his acting to signal or prepare us. He can be ferociously angry toward his children but also so confused he needs help and knows it. The movie gets no cheap laughs out of him.
The wonderful screenplay makes sure that, even in the smallest ways, every action has a reaction. Wendy, trying to be tender, removes Lenny's suspenders before they fly back to Buffalo — she thinks they make him look old and undignified. Sure enough, on the plane, his pants fall down as she escorts him to the bathroom. But this isn't slapstick — don't look for a hilarious reaction shot.
The humor comes from us emphasizing with the characters. And from a shock of recognition — there but for fortune go us.
Setting a film in Buffalo in winter guarantees a certain kind of color scheme — dark, gray, cold, somber. And Jenkins and cinematographer Mott Hupfel finds it at the nursing home, an outwardly drab place that Jon chooses because it's close and accepts Medicaid.
The crassness with which Jon makes his decision upsets Wendy, who dreams of putting her father in an elegant, retreat-like retirement community. Jon calls it an "upward mobility fantasy" that's much too late to help Lenny.
Yet amid all that, Jenkins starts to look for the interior warmth in this environment and finds it at the nursing home. The employees there are trying to help. Wendy is invited to bring her pet cat; she also gets to know a Nigerian worker interested in her writing.
And as Wendy moves into Jon's home to be near their father, they start to find — under these extreme conditions — a focus and family interaction they probably haven't had for a long time.
Jenkins pushes a little too hard for a compassionate ending — it's sweet but doesn't feel as honest as the rest of the movie. But she has given us several of the year's most believable characters.
I'd like to know what happens to Wendy and Jon in the future. Grade: A-