“We are awful people,” Lauren Linney’s character observes in The Savages. She’s referring to herself and her older brother, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. These two middle-aged siblings must come to grips with what to do about their estranged father, a man who can no longer take care of himself. A decision to place their dad in a nursing home evokes that guilt-ridden reaction from his daughter. Yes, this is another “downer” movie, folks. But outstanding performances by Linney and Hoffman make it a worthwhile one.
For many years, Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) has lived with his girlfriend in Sun City, Arizona. After the woman dies, his bizarre behavior triggers an emergency call to the son and daughter. Wendy Savage (Linney) and Jon Savage (Hoffman) haven’t seen their father for a very long time -- and it’s obvious they are less than fond of him, mostly because of his abuse while they were children. Still, he is their father, so they travel to Sun City, take him back with them to Buffalo, and deposit him in a nursing home.
Jon teaches a theater course in Buffalo, so since he’s the one with a steady income, Wendy, who lives in New York City, must move to be near their father. This disrupts her life of writing plays, trying to get funded for them, and carrying on an affair with a married man (Peter Friedman). Although Wendy does what she can to make the old man’s room brighter, her father doesn’t notice. In fact, he sometimes even objects to things she does to help him feel more comfortable. One such sequence features a red pillow -- and, believe me, it’s quite memorable!
While exploring the relationship between the brother and sister here, writer/director Tamara Jenkens (Slums of Beverly Hills) covers more than the frustrations they face. She also spotlights moments of humor, warmth and tenderness. Fortunately, no two actors could express these emotions any more realistically than Linney (Man of the Year) and Hoffman (Capote). Linney goes straight to the core of her character, a flawed woman whose sensitive feelings may be dormant but are hinted at early on by her attachment to her lover’s dog. Hoffman fits perfectly into the role of a man so closed off emotionally that he’s letting a woman he loves take off for Europe, and it’s not until much later that we see this “independent” man shed a tear. Watching the two siblings get closer -- and become better, less selfish persons as a result of dealing with their dying father -- offers viewers a crash course in human relations.
The Savages reminded me how lucky I am to have a sister with a kind heart. When our mother could no longer stay alone because of her terminal illness, my sister took her in and cared for her until the end. Putting Mom in a nursing home was never an option for her. However, this film also helped me understand that taking such an action doesn’t necessarily mean the relatives are “awful people.” Sometimes it’s the right thing to do -- but maintaining contact then becomes of utmost importance.
(Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures and rated “R” for some sexuality and language.)