Written and Directed by Tamara Jenkins
What better time of year to talk about family? The holidays bring families together. Differences are put aside; memories are shared. I don’t know about you but this warm, fuzzy Christmas wish is not what happens when my family gets together. We’re lucky enough if we actually manage to get together. Still, we are far from savages … far from THE SAVAGES, that is. Now this is a real family. Mom left when little John and Wendy Savage were still prepubescent. They suddenly found themselves under the sole care of Lenny Savage but his idea of care included neglect and beatings. Now, Wendy Savage (Laura Linney) is nearly 40 and temping to support herself while she dreams of being a playwright in New York City. John Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theatre professor who has success but carries himself like a failure. As for dear old Dad, Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) went off and made a home for himself in Sun City, Arizona. He moved in with his lover and the two were together until her death. With dementia and Parkinson’s disease settling in, Lenny is no longer capable of taking care of himself. John and Wendy, having washed their hands of the old man years ago, now have to take responsibility for what is theirs, whether they want to or not. We can run as far away as we want but family is still family.
You would never guess but THE SAVAGES is actually pretty darn funny. Tamara Jenkins both wrote and directed the film, wise to realize that her harsh reality would be difficult to swallow without a little sugar added. In fact, this is the script’s greatest triumph. Life is messy and you will get your hands dirty if you decide to go outside. Still, no matter how hard it gets, laughter makes it easier and Jenkins can see humour in even this dark scenario. The laughter serves not only to put her audience at ease but it slowly heals the Savages as well as they find themselves seeing life more honestly than they ever have before. Nothing forces people to live in the present more than the promise of death. With Lenny reaching the end of his line, John and Wendy must do something they have never done before; they must grow up. (It’s no wonder their surnames are taken directly from the Peter Pan stories.) Growing up for these two means turning around to face the very man they have been running from for their entire lives, seeing him as the fragile human being he is and releasing him of the blame they have laid on him and hid behind for as long as they can recall.
John and Wendy must learn to forgive in order to move on. Simple enough of a concept, perhaps too simple, but Jenkins is smart enough to know that this is a nuanced, sometimes torturous process and one that would require a higher caliber performer to convey. Wendy Savage is essentially paralyzed. She wants to be a writer but lacks the confidence to make that happen. While she lives in the shadow of her brother’s numerous degrees, she makes the cubicle rounds and seems to be waiting for someone to acknowledge her talent as worthy before standing up for it herself. Linney plays Wendy as a woman who knows she deserves more from everyone in her life, including herself, but hasn’t quite figured out how to make that necessity manifest. Meanwhile, brother John doesn’t dress up for funerals, refers to his father as a situation and signs sympathy cards without reading them first. His work is his life and he refuses to feel for anyone but as Hoffman goes from sternly controlling his sister to crying privately in the bathroom in the middle of the night over a woman he does not know how to love, it becomes obvious that the feelings he is trying so hard to suppress will be coming out regardless. The Savage siblings will come a long way from only being able to say, “I love you,” on a balloon.
It would be entirely left field to call THE SAVAGES preachy or overly critical but Jenkins does still draw our attention to some truly savage human behavior – our treatment of the elderly. While the orderlies and nurses are doing their best, they clearly lack funding to make their residents feel as comfortable as possible. Regardless of how you lived your life, there is no reason it should end in small room made even smaller by a curtain that cuts it in half. The elderly may be dying but they aren’t already dead and that’s the way we’re treating them. Jenkins and her sensitive, honest film should be commended for not wagging a judgmental finger in the faces of the characters or the audience but rather showing all involved that caring for our elders in their final hours is definitely hard but there is still laughter to be found in the days before darkness falls.