Hollywood films are quick to take us to fantasy land, especially these days, when computer graphics are almost ubiquitous. But there are some places – places we may have to face ourselves one day – from which they shy away. Chief among these is the end of life. We do get our share of cartoons like The Bucket List , or vanity pieces that one critic has called Allie McGraw disease: as in the movie Love Story , a movie star dies slowly, becoming more and more beautiful as she does.
But how many films can you name that explore the lives of adult children, who are equipped neither financially nor emotionally, trying to care for a failing parent? How about the ignominy of bed pans and adult diapers, of your father thinking you’re one of the help, of sterile, ugly nursing homes where the old cry out in pain and confusion? Hollywood doesn’t go there because they think we wouldn’t want to look.
A brilliant film by writer/director Tamara Jenkins – called The Savages – has arrived in Bloomington, Indiana, after an auspicious limited release and many Oscar nominations. It concerns a brother and sister, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, and their father, sinking into dementia and raging against the dying of the light, played with fearsome gravity by Philip Bosco.
The brother and sister, Wendy and Jon Savage, have never been close; perhaps they have been on the run, in their separate ways, from childhood trauma, and seeing each other reminds them of those days. (That question is partially answered very late in the film.) Neither sibling is flourishing. Wendy, though she has a master’s degree in English, is trapped as a temp in Manhattan, watching the clock and dreaming of a Guggenheim fellowship and stealing office supplies to print and mail out her autobiographical play. She is sleeping with a married man from up a landing in her apartment complex, who seems to deplete her emotionally, leaving her nervous, angry, and raw. Brother Jon went all the way to the Ph.D. level, and is teaching theater at a small college in Buffalo. With his patchy beard, unkempt, thinning blond hair, and pot belly, he seems colorless and permanently exhausted. He has a Polish girlfriend who wants to marry him, but Jon cannot even bring himself to do that even to stop her from being deported.
The elder Savage, Lenny, has deteriorated to the point that he can no longer live independently. In-home care is out; his living situation has deteriorated, too, and he’s on the street. Given that the kids are barely scraping by, keeping Dad at home is out of the question. Wendy and Jon travel to Phoenix to retrieve him. Alone with her father, on the plane back, Wendy can barely navigate Lenny, with his shuffling Parkinson’s walk. And when he has a bathroom emergency, she stands him up, and, in the aisle, in front of the entire plane, his pants fall down around his ankles, revealing his diaper. The look that passes between father and daughter is so filled with pity, pain, and humiliation, it freezes the characters in place, and us in the audience, for what seems an endless moment.
But there’s something I haven’t told you about The Savages . It’s funny. Against all odds, all the way through, even in its frequently painful moments and it’s sodden, wintry landscape, it’s truly, deeply funny. There are a few overtly comic situations, as when Jon tears a rotator cuff and must suspend himself by his neck from a door for twenty minutes. But how the movie maintains its overall comic tone is altogether mysterious, almost magical. It’s the deep pleasure you get from watching three gifted actors who seem to have actually become their characters. It’s in the way Wendy and Jon are constantly taking the measure of the other’s life, and competing; yet even when they bicker, you sense the powerful love they feel for each other, almost as husband and wife.
Tamara Jenkins hasn’t made many movies. I’ve seen only one other of those, The Slums of Beverly Hills , a coming of age movie equally bittersweet, unsparing, and unsentimental. As good as that film was, The Savages is on another plane entirely, a place to which few directors aspire, or for that matter even know exists. It’s such a bracing and clarifying experience, it can make you angry at how badly other movies let us down.