The Savages (Directed by Tamara Jenkins, 2007): I did not expect to like The Savages because I had it pegged as something it’s not. A few years back, I was a finalist in a short fiction contest and was flabbergasted at the results. Not because I didn’t win, but because of what did win. It was a short story about a girl who worked in a retirement home, and used the elderly there as comic relief, an idea even more in bad taste than it sounds. And that is what I expected out of The Savages, the story of two middle-aged people (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) having to take care of their elderly father as he begins to suffer from dementia. The opening credits did nothing to dispel this fear either, with shots of old people dancing, tooling around in golf carts, arguing with the care-givers. But, the film’s not about that. The film is very direct and, even downright brutal, at times, about what happens in the last days of a person’s life.
Lenny (Philip Bosco) was not a good father, running out on his family, with some suggestions that before he left, he was abusive, as well. When Lenny’s girlfriend passes away, her children kick him out of the home they’d been paying for, leaving Jon (Hoffman) and Wendy (Linney) to have to fly out to Arizona, and figure out what to do with their father. The children’s lives are messes: Jon is struggling to complete a book on Bertolt Brecht while refusing to commit to his soon-to-have-her-visa-expire girlfriend, while Wendy is a wannabe playwright forced to work temp jobs to make ends meet while having an affair with a married man. They bring him back to Buffalo and put him in an assisted living facility, and Wendy moves in with Jon so that she can visit her father more regularly. The performance by Bosco is incredible, as a man trying to hold onto whatever scraps of dignity he has left by flying into fits of rage, while having to be subjected to humiliations like adult diapers, discussions of his post-mortem procedures, and his kids fighting about him, in front of him, without even asking his opinion.
But, I’m making this seem like an unnecessarily dire experience. It isn’t. There’s actually a lot of humor to be mined in the situation. The relationship between Jon and Wendy is spot-on, as they both compete to prove they’re not as maladjusted as the other sibling, while struggling with the feelings of being there for someone who was not there for them. There’s a movie night where Jon’s choice of an old film to boost his father’s spirits is not met with enthusiasm by the caregivers. And there’s a feisty cat who creates one of the most humanly enjoyable scenes in the film, where Wendy befriends one of the caregivers.
The Savages is really a wonderful film. It does not sugar-coat the facts about what happens as somebody’s life approaches its end, but it finds humor and humanity in the situation, without stripping the dignity away from the people who have lost so much of it already. I wish I could go back and show that woman who wrote the short story this film and say “There, that is how you do it.”