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The Savages
cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laura Linley, and Philip Bosco

writer and director: Tamara Jenkins

110 minutes (15) 2007
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Barbara Davies
When Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) shows signs of dementia, alarm bells start ringing for his estranged, unmarried children Wendy (Laura Linney) and Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Things come to a head when he's ejected from his Sun City, Arizona home of 20 years and they are faced with taking care of the man who ill-treated them when they were children.

A mother who deserted them, a father who abused them, it's not surprising that the Savage siblings grew up with problems of intimacy. Wendy is temping in New York City while applying for creative arts grants and dreaming of being a successful playwright; she loves her married lover's dog more than she loves him. Meanwhile Jon is professor of drama at Buffalo; he can't commit to marrying the woman he's lived with for three years, so it looks like she's going to return to Poland. The last thing they need on their hands is a demented father.

Guilt-stricken Wendy's ideas of what would be suitable for Lenny differ vastly from her brother's. No nonsense Jon books him into the Valley View, a nursing home just around the corner from his campus. Wendy moves in with Jon, temporarily, and so begins a period of adjustment and reassessment for everyone involved.

On the face of it, the storyline of this Oscar-nominated film looks bleak, but, throughout, Tamara Jenkins leavens her script with humour and the occasional touch of surrealism. Not the sentimental kind of humour either, but something more natural, often black - she was determined to avoid 'schmaltz and sentimentality' and largely achieves that goal. The scenes where the siblings have to ascertain their father's wishes regarding resuscitation and funeral arrangements and where Lenny is watching Al Jolson black his face in The Jazz Singer, to outraged mutters from the black members of the audience, are a case in point.

Veteran stage-actor Bosco is totally believable as the gruff, bad-tempered, increasingly bewildered father, who would rather switch off his hearing aid than listen to his children quarrelling, and Peter Friedman makes a good fist of the thankless role of Wendy's married lover Larry, but it's Linney (Kinsey) and Hoffman (Capote) who do the heavy lifting. They bring a naturalness, charm, and assuredness to their roles that makes the interaction between brother and sister, with all its ups and downs, utterly convincing, though it's a bit of a stretch that both would be interested in theatre. Hoffman plays the practical, kind, yet emotionally stunted brother to perfection, but Linney has the more difficult task. Wendy is an emotional mess, self-absorbed, pill-popping, a liar and a thief (if only of office stationery), and she's even at times rather despicable - witness the scene where she distresses an old woman by snatching away her red pillow - yet somehow Linney manages to make us understand and pity her character rather than hate her.

In short, The Savages is tender and realistic, though in real life the span between diagnosis of dementia and death is unlikely to be so conveniently brief. And it's a surprisingly upbeat film considering its subject matter.

DVD extras: there's a 20-minute documentary about the inspiration behind and making of The Savages, two extended musical scenes, and a gallery of the director's photographs.

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