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Almost everything to be gleaned about “The Savages” from its marketing — the precious cartoon poster, the spunky trailer, the extremely limited release — suggests yet another ho-hum, self-indulgent indie film. It's not. Although the movie hinges on quirky characterization, that staple of contemporary indie cinema, its use of dark humor gives it a heft uncommon to the genre.
Directed by Tamara Jenkins (“Slums of Beverly Hills”), “The Savages” tracks titularly surnamed siblings Jon and Wendy (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, brilliantly paired) as they care for their father, Lenny (Philip Bosco), who is slipping into dementia. When Lenny loses his caretaker and is forced out of his Arizona house, his children move him to a nursing home (a euphemism for hell in some cultures) in Buffalo, where Jon works as a downtrodden professor of theater.
Both Jon and Wendy are struggling to live the life of the mind — as well as life in general. Jon is trying to finish a book on Bertholt Brecht as his long-term girlfriend prepares to move back to Poland. Wendy supports her unpublished playwriting by working menial temp jobs, where she filches postage and applies for fellowships on company time. Outside work she carries on an affair with a married man (Peter Friedman). The Savages' personal dysfunctions collide when Wendy moves in with Jon to help tend to their father — who, we learn from Jon and Wendy's rants, is a big reason they're so bent in the first place.
The setup sounds like a downer, but from the Savages' bickering and ineptness Jenkins mines comic gold. She addresses a genuinely depressing subject with an appreciated light touch. Not that the movie is nonstop laughs. There are some horrifying scenes that portray the brutal reality of what it takes to care for a dementia patient — such as when Lenny can't make it to an airplane lavatory without losing his drawers, or when he breaks into a rage at his fellow patients. But by drawing humor from her characters' misfortune — misfortune that they fully recognize as their own, I should add — Jenkins manages to find vitality in the face of impending death.
Some reviews of “The Savages” have complained that the movie focuses on Jon and Wendy to a fault — that it fails to probe Lenny's character and passes up the opportunity to conduct a broader social examination of how we deal with aging. But it seems to me that Jenkins has good reasons to eschew a maudlin portrayal of Lenny. This is a film about life — by virtue of his disease, Lenny can't be a part of it. Throughout the film we know that he will soon die. There is no suspense about that. To his children he is, in fact, effectively dead, no longer the father they once knew. Persistence on the part of the living is the point.
So how do we deal with dementia? Or is there even a general way to answer that question? By offering a pair of siblings who can only view the issue through the lens of their own problems, the film suggests there is not. It doesn't leave typical responses unacknowledged — Wendy, for example, wants to put Lenny in a high-end assisted living facility, only to be berated by Jon for being unrealistic and selfishly motivated. But it does seem to say that how we treat our aging parents is an intensely private affair.
Hence the quirk. Jon and Wendy are undoubtedly individuals, and they deal with their problems in individual ways. Affected characters can be annoying when unmoored to a larger theme — Wes Anderson's “Darjeering Limited” comes to mind — but “The Savages” avoids excess by never straying far from Lenny's condition. (Anyhow, it's hard for a lumbering actor like Hoffman to appear anything other than a red-blooded dude, his effete turn in “The Big Lebowski” notwithstanding.) Whether you connect with the movie may depend on your view of its style — I loathed “Juno,” another recent quirky/serious movie, because of its cuteness, whereas I delighted in the somber tone of “The Savages” — but it will leave you with more to think about than a flighty song or the protagonist's offbeat wardrobe.
Doesn't hurt with the Godzilla tie-in. With the mentioning of Monarch, and the atomic bomb…