Brother and Sister
An Aging Father Forces Siblings To Grow Up And Closer In This Savagely Funny Drama
In an early scene of The Savages, written and directed by Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills), the Savage siblings arrive from the East Coast and, adjusting to the Arizona climate, Wendy (Laura Linney) pulls off her tights from under her dress outside of their rental car and asks Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) if he's going to put on something nicer than the T-shirt he's wearing. Jon bites back that he didn't realize it fucking mattered.
They're both right: He looks like a slob, but nobody--except her--cares. They don't appear to dislike each other as much as not know one another and, hell, they've made it this far in life staying out of each other's faces. They're in Sun City to aid their ailing, aged father, Lenny (Philip Bosco), and end up, by the movie's close, mending their own distant relationship and caring for the father who emotionally abandoned them long ago.
Wendy is a wannabe playwright in New York. Her single-gal apartment, office job that underutilizes her skills, and affair with a married man in her building attest to both her unattached status and passive personality. She's a questioner of people and situations, but is willing to be put off, as if familiar with having her desires and needs ignored. The fabulously talented Linney plays up Wendy's emotional translucency with bright blue eyes that pop against her curly brown hair.
Hoffman's performance matches Linney's, but his scruffy graying hair and untidy beard and mustache have the opposite effect, fading most of Jon's personality behind his grumpy wit and lack of patience. He wears underwashed plaid and tan, lives alone in an old house in Buffalo, N.Y., surrounded by books and papers, and pushes other people away with the same force Wendy is drawn to them.
Lenny's girlfriend has reached the point in her old age when she needs a part-time assistant, and he's almost there himself. When we first meet Lenny, it's the moment before he loses his shit in angry confusion, smearing his fecal matter on the mirror in the bathroom in retaliation to a slight from his girlfriend's nurse. Bosco plays the gruff, bewildered Lenny, a man out of it most of the time, with an honest rawness and sensitivity. Wendy and Jon arrive in Arizona after the death of Lenny's girlfriend and learn that, to their surprise, the Sun City house has been left to the girlfriend's family.
With no place to live, Lenny must come to Buffalo, where the pre-Thanksgiving gray skies, damp cold days, and long dark nights last into the New Year. It feels like twilight here, and spare, lean tree branches dot the scenery even when the sun shines for a moment in the afternoon. Jon finds an assisted-living facility for Lenny so dreary that Wendy just melts, thinking they must secure something better. Outside a fancier home where Wendy had set up an interview for her father, which he fails, Jon yells at her, insisting that such facilities are simply places to go to die and their quality is important only to those with money. The tension ebbs for a moment when a lady pushing a resident in a wheelchair passes by and gives them the stink eye.
It's The Savages' humorous moments that make a common subject so humane. You may fight with your family in public, but it's nobody's business. Hoffman's prickly humor wants to argue with Linney's sweet, naive sense of the world, but she doesn't take it personally enough to make you feel sorry for her. When Wendy moves in with Jon upstate to get their dad settled, she quips about his messy house and he gets defensive; when they play tennis and his neck goes out, she can't help cracking up as she asks him if he's alright. Afterward, Hoffman keeping his head motionless in a neck brace is just hilarious.
But the sly humor in the writing and the actors' timing is like the funny, really funny, people you know: It's not about jokes, but about understanding and cleverness. The looks on their faces when they get busted for eating the cookies before refreshment time at a group for family members of folks with dementia is priceless, and the embarrassment they share brings them one step closer to becoming siblings who are friends. Much like forgiving your parents for the wrongs they have committed, a part of growing up is realizing how arbitrary family is: You don't have to like them. H