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Ambitious, daring, energetic, and entertaining —Marty Mapes (review...)

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I am aware when I watch a film not only of my own reactions but also of a desire to anticipate the reactions of others. Attending the Starz Denver Film Festival opening-night screening of The Savages, a new film written and directed by Tamara Jenkins (of Slums of Beverly Hills fame), I noticed a gulf between my own and my projected “what-would-the-person-in-the-street-say?” reactions. I saw this on one hand as a warm and darkly funny film about aging and family dysfunction, and on the other hand, I questioned whether the academic elements of this film will sail past or even mystify a lot of audiences. New Yorkers will love this, I thought, but will anyone else?

Part of this disparity emerged out of the fun of seeing this film with such an enthusiastic audience. Film festival folks are a fairly highly educated group (whether in academia or by thousands of hours of watching films), and getting an early peek at more of the great work of actors Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman was certainly a draw for this crowd. The sharply observed script about Wendy and John Savage, a brother and sister who band together to respond to their father’s abrupt physical and mental decline, warmed the crowd to the flashes of humor Jenkins found in painful situations. I even heard a lot of sniffles during the final couple of scenes.

Doctor of Social Unrest

Linney and Hoffman savage each other
Linney and Hoffman savage each other

With its dark subject matter (the grave perils of aging — and of dealing with aging parents) and liberal sprinklings of academic references, however, I could not help wondering whether The Savages will get the wider audience it deserves. It should, because this is a terrific film on how to live with (and without) aging parents, a subject that is closer to home for more people than ever. I couldn’t help wondering whether other audiences will laugh at exchanges like the one in which Lenny, who is in the hospital, begs for help from his son. Lenny is in restraints because of his agitation, and is newly diagnosed with dementia (his son always says it as if it is a disease, as in “he has dementia”):

“You’re a doctor!” Lenny shouts. “Do something!”

His daughter interjects, “He’s not that kind of doctor.”

“I thought he was a doctor!”

“A doctor of philosophy. He’s a professor, of theater,” Wendy says.

“Like ... Broadway?” Lenny says, trying to wrap his mind around this idea.

“No, Dad,” says Wendy, “like theater of social unrest!”

As a recovering English major, I never delved into academia as deeply as the grown children in The Savages. In the twenty years since their dad moved in with his girlfriend in Arizona, the kids have been on the East Coast distancing themselves from their dysfunctional childhood and struggling up each rung of the intellectual ladder. Wendy has her master’s in fine arts but is just a temp in work and love, having an affair with a married man and using company time and supplies to apply for playwriting fellowships. Her older brother John is little better off, telling his sister “Nobody’s ready for that,” that being marriage to a Polish woman he loves yet refuses to pursue in favor of keeping his job trying to teach theater to callow youth in Buffalo.

It’s Ten O’Clock: Do You Know Where Your Grandma Is?

The director opens with images of Lenny’s home, Sun City, Arizona, as a shiny, pastel-colored idyll whose elderly residents zip through their suburban neighborhoods occasionally in golf carts and participate in group activities like swimming and chair exercises. In the charming opening dance sequence, ladies of a certain age dance in unison from behind a row of sculpted topiary to Peggy Lee singing “I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard.” All the while, Jenkins suggests, behind these unchanging facades, a series of bizarre dramas are unfolding the way this one is.

Eldercare for Dummies

The story starts in early on its theme of the indignities of aging: John and Wendy’s dad, Lenny (Philip Bosco), lives with his girlfriend in Sun City, Arizona. Doris” home nurse is responsible for her care; she is worse off mentally and physically than Lenny, her partner of 20 years. One day, Lenny forgets to flush and the home nurse (David Zayas) responds abusively: “I am a home healthcare professional,” he sniffs. “I wasn’t hired to take care of your shit” He takes Lenny’s cereal away mid-bite, promising to return it only if Lenny flushes. Lenny responds by writing on the bathroom wall with said excrement (arguably all he has left; his partner is farther gone than he is by now). His kids are called in to deal with him at this point. The problem: he hadn’t been much of a father to them and by choice they haven’t seen him in years. And when Doris expires during a manicure, suddenly Lenny is without a home or anyone to care for him, and it’s too late in his life for him to fend for himself. Now it’s up to John and Wendy, whom he hasn’t seen in twenty years.

Wendy is the type who says it’s a crisis but doesn’t know where to begin, so it is John who takes matters into his own hands and finds a nursing home for their father near his home in Buffalo where he can be cared for. John invites Wendy to stay with him in Buffalo while they all reckon with this new phase of their lives.

Who Needs Catharsis?

In one scene that tried but didn’t quite clear the leap across that academic gulf I perceived, John Savage justifies Bertholt Brecht’s importance in theater’s history to his students, comparing Brecht to the popular playwrights of his time. “Brecht preferred thought to feeling,” he lectures, drawing a line through the word “feeling” in one column, then underlining “thought” in the opposing column. “Brecht preferred intellect over sensation,” John continues, when his cell phone interrupts with another crisis at the nursing home. After John hangs up his phone, he falls silent in a weird, still moment when a student asks him about the difference between the terms he has compared on his list. But because the ideas she asks about are as comparable as apples and oranges, we see John struggling and failing to even begin to answer his student and it’s not clear whether he’s stunned by the news he’s just heard on the phone or by his recognition of the impossibility of the comparison he has laid out. This lets all the steam out of that promising mini-lecture on Brecht (about whom John is writing a book in hopes of continuing his career).

I still don’t know whether this will play in Peoria but I found the writing in The Savages funny, clever, and excruciating in just the right ways (as when Wendy asks her brother about the medications he takes, revealing more about her own interests than she realizes). The script hits most of the emotional notes it aims for, including the important ones at the end (the very ones Brecht would have disapproved of most for inducing in audiences the tranquilizing effects of catharsis). And I can’t imagine a better cast: Laura Linney is the very soul of a neurotic underachiever in the throes of her midlife crisis, and I swear I could watch Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing John, say the line about their dad and his girlfriend havung signed a “pre-nup without the nup” twenty times and enjoy every it every time. As the dad, Philip Bosco does a great job of being present yet invisible during his kids” heated discussions of him, and even the more peripheral characters are spot on.

I See England, I See France

Much of the film concerns the indignities — and even horrors — of aging. That Lenny no longer has full control over his own functions is something his daughter hasn’t quite come to terms with. When she checks him out of the hospital, for example, Wendy removes her father’s suspenders with a brisk and cheery, “These aren’t your style,” trying to restore some of her own idea of dignity to him. But in the next scene, on the airplane from Arizona to New York, Lenny gets up to find the facilities and stops, panicked. At first we think he must have wet his pants but his panicked pause is because his trousers have dropped to the floor to reveal his adult diaper, ineptly taped on over his underpants for everyone on the plane to see.

Yet despite its parade of late-in-life indignities and some challenging dialogue, there’s still a good chance in this era of Netflix and “the long tail” (Google it) that this film’s comforting ring of truth and its healthy lashings of humor will still attract the sorts of viewers who return year after year to other modern classics of the dysfunctional-family-during-the-holidays genre, for The Savages deserves a place on the list that includes Home for the Holidays and Pieces of April.