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"The Savages", Also Revisited

Chris Feil continues his look at the films of Tamara Jenkins...

The Savages came nearly a decade after Tamara Jenkins arrived in 1998 with Slums of Beverly Hills, and the wait found the writer/director’s onscreen family dynamics develop to something tougher. Turns out time brings a whole host of concerns both harder to reconcile and compromise with, both in fiction and real life. Though it deals with timeless issues like family and aging, The Savages is also quite of its time, though in subtle ways it has maybe taken over another decade to see. What’s always been clear is that the film is miraculous.

Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman star as adult siblings and unfulfilled creatives Wendy and Jon Savage, forced to care for their estranged and formerly abusive father as he succumbs to dementia. Jenkins again is fascinated with our unfortunate bodies and social pretenses, this time with the film’s humor taking a more refined, unflinching swing at our very human shortcomings.

In a way, the film is the first self-aware post-9/11 comedy, peppering the film with jokes about abusing FEMA grants and the Homeland Security Advisory System. But moreso, The Savages feels aligned to a specific contemporary mindset of frozenness in the face of reckoning, of not being able to cope with crisis and resorting to our weakest impulses. Here all our problems that were easier to ignore when they weren’t grabbing us by the guts come to cash their check. The film is bracing in how it illustrates how very personal pains handled by an impersonal world make us helpless, while making us laugh at how we can’t help ourselves.

How to care for the supposed caregiver losing its foundational capacities, to face responsibilities where grace seems both essential and impossible? “Wake Me When It’s Over” Wendy names her play, Jon calls his Brecht book “No Laughing Matter”; each of them diagnosing the bifurcated ennui of her time. And their disposition on how to handle their dying father.

But the film’s delicate balance between comedy and drama is in the deft hands of Linney and Hoffman (not to mention the underrated work from Philip Bosco as their father Lenny). Linney landed that Best Actress nomination, but revisionist history to make it a tandem prize is fully acceptable. Though Wendy is more foregrounded, their performances are inextricable, a knot of instigations and resentments underlined in compassion. Separately they’re genius, but together they create the tricky symbiosis that is a sibling unit with bitter, forgiving reality.

The affection Slums had for the past is replaced by a shared history that would rather go forgotten, Jenkins’ whimsy diminished with the weight of age and a void once occupied by optimism. But once again, its humanism, in all of its scatological and humbling reality, that becomes her defining narrative characteristic. It’s not that Wendy and Jon can forgive their father, it’s that they keep going. Trite as that may sound, the film’s understated profundity is how it faces that eternal struggle. “That’s it?” Wendy asks once Lenny’s debilitating struggle comes to its uneventful end, and yep that’s it. But with cutting humor and an eye on our resiliency, Jenkins shows there is so much more.

Even when - no, especially when - it hurts or makes you laugh at the uncomfortable, The Savages is perfect.

More Tamara Jenkins
Slums of Beverly Hills

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Reader Comments (11)

Miraculous she got that Oscar nod in such a competitive year, but well deserved.

October 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterParanoid Android

Yes certainly a shock.

October 5, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Ooh. Sounds like time for a rewatch. Linney is currently killing it as another character named Wendy on Ozark (especially in Season 2). I've missed her so much.

October 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPam

Big. Red. Pillow.

What an Oscar clip.

So glad she god this nom!

October 5, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

In contrast to Slums, I didn't like this film at all. Both of my parents had major dementia at the time it was out, and the way this film handled it and the family relationships just didn't ring true for me or my sister. Great actors, though.

October 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDoctor Strange

It seems morbid to say I like this movie but I do. So glad Laura got the Best Actress nom! Both siblings actually got an Oscar nom that year.

October 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterFadhil

such a great performance.-- and one of my proudest achievements predicting her nomination. I haven't seen this movie since then but now i must again.

October 5, 2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

@brookesboy: totally! "BIG. RED. PILLOW." is always the line/scene I remember from this film. Linney was great in this. And director Jenkins is expert at instilling a droll sense of humor into her films.

October 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRob

This is a great film, and if anyone's interested, it's worth reading all about the production Hope For Film, a book by one of the producers, Ted Hope. Really fascinating account of what sort of mayhem went on behind the scenes that you would never guess when watching the final result.

October 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEoghan McQ

She deserved this nomination but NOT over Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart (which IMO is her best performance and a really underrated film). She’s certainly better than Cate in Elizabeth: The Train Wreck

October 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

Cate and Angelina switched the following year when Cate was denied for Benjamin Button but Angelina got in for Changeling.

October 6, 2018 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

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