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20th Century Fox presents
"We're not in therapy right now. We're in real life."
DVD ReviewWriter/director Tamara Jenkins isn't one for bold and sweeping statements—she's more interested in the telling detail, the unusual nuance, the flash of disarming candor and the layers of history that inform the complicated relationships between family members. She's got the instincts and eye of a great short story writer, not a novelist—and there's a whole lot to be said for that, as the legions of fans of, say, Alice Munro and Raymond Carver can attest. So The Savages, while it has the trappings of a deeply conventional Problem Movie, is superior in its illumination of the little things. It's the kind of picture that can annoy people who are looking for a film to cut a wide swath, and if that's what you're looking for, this surely isn't the movie for you.
For the rest of us, though, extremely high acting values and a mordant sense of humor go a long way. The set-up of the piece couldn't be more ordinary—Wendy is an aspiring playwright in New York, working as a temp and pushing 40; her brother John is an academic in Buffalo who needs to finish his Brecht book, because that's all that matters in the hothouse of academia; and they get the call from out west that their father is deteriorating. Dad's girlfriend passes on and it's clear that the old man can't take care of himself, so in an all-too-familiar reversal of roles, Wendy and John are pressed into taking care of their father, finding him an available bed in a nursing home, packing up his things, and contending with the noise and the many details of the imminent mortality of a parent. It's something we've all seen, and many have experienced first hand, or will be contending with in the years and decades ahead. (It's also a reminder to me to be extra nice to my own kids.) Jenkins' very smart script has attracted a cast of the highest caliber, and maybe the greatest pleasure of the movie is watching them at work, teasing out jokes and nuances that in lesser hands would have evaporated.
What the Savage children share is a ferocious fear of commitment, and their father's deterioration forces them to confront exactly that. Wendy is having a hopeless affair with a married older man—he steals a few minutes for her while he's ostensibly walking his dog and actually working through his midlife crisis, and you can see that Wendy, both personally and professionally, is terrified of facing the truths of her own failings. Laura Linney is remarkable in the role, showing us that Wendy clings to her dreams even though she thinks they're a little bit stupid and unrealistic; she's hungry for human connections, and is left picking up scraps. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays her brother, the self-appointed realist in the family—he's great at communicating how John has been in the academic echo chamber for so long that he can't see anything else, and how he passes off his emotional callousness as straight shooting. And maybe best of all, and with the least to say, is Philip Bosco, as Lenny, their father. Even in the best of times, it seems like Lenny was an irascible sort, and age and infirmity have made him cranky, contrary, uncompromising, and unable to take care of himself, a brutal cocktail for a guy who clearly didn't much care for his kids. He's like a pissed off Buffalonian Lear, and he can be both a son of a bitch and heartbreaking, as when, for instance, he mistakes his downscale nursing home for a shoddily run hotel.
You can pretty much tell where all of this is headed, and Jenkins isn't much interested in springing big narrative surprises on us. You do sometimes feel like maybe it's a little thin—the movie runs close to two hours, and for much of it, really nothing much happens—but there are enough terrific small moments to keep you hanging in, and Hoffman and Linney pull off one of the toughest things actors can do: we actually believe that they could be brother and sister. Jenkins occasionally goes broad for a big laugh, even if it's a little jarring—to bring back the old times, for instance, Lenny screens The Jazz Singer for his fellow residents, and we see the blackface scenes pissing off the principally African-American staff, but the movie was probably twenty years before even Lenny's time. If you go hunting for reasons not to like this movie, you'll find them; it's on a small scale, but its pleasures are numerous.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: dOc was provided only with a screener disc for review purposes, so it may not accurately reflect the final product—the review copy has more than its share of image problems, however. Flesh tones look almost uniformly blotchy, and the transfer sorely lacks in detail, at the dark end of the spectrum especially.
Image Transfer Grade: C-
Audio Transfer Review: The 5.1 track can sound a little overmixed, especially considering that it's almost entirely a dialogue-driven movie; you'll be able to make out almost all of it, though, despite occasional distractions.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish, French with remote access
8 Other Trailer(s) featuring Juno, 27 Dresses, The Darjeeling Limited, The Family Stone, Music Within, The Onion Movie, Bones, Bonneville
Extras Grade: C+
Final CommentsA terrifically talented trio of lead actors find every last complexity in a mordantly funny and true screenplay, making for a keenly observed film about growing old, and caring for those you're related to, whether you like them or not, as time brutally marches on.
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