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The Savages Movie Poster

The Savages
Three and a Half out of Five Stars
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Rated: R
Directed by:
Tamara Jenkins
Starring: Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Bosco,
Peter Friedman, David Zayas
Released by: Fox Searchlight Pictures

In Short: An array of brilliant performances gives life to Tamara Jenkins’ sharp, humane dialogue, creating an engaging examination of frayed familial bonds.

Twisted Family Ties
Jenkins delivers awkward moments with satisfying results
by Matt Kane

It’s been nearly ten years since writer/director Tamara Jenkins appeared on the scene with her debut feature, “The Slums of Beverly Hills,” which garnered a host of plaudits, and suggested the emergence of a vibrant, incisive and sorely needed female voice amongst the typically testosterone-heavy independent film world. In recent interviews, Jenkins has given a number of reasons as to why a decade passed before audiences got to see her next feature, but no one can claim that time has dulled her edges. With “The Savages,” Jenkins has made another biting tale of familial relations told with empathy and authenticity, reaffirming her status as an expert navigator of the dramatic/comedic line.

It’s safe to say that Jenkins’ film was never going to fly too far off the mark when she landed Laura Linney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman for the film’s lead roles. They portray a pair of siblings each struggling with the vestiges of stunted adolescence, who suddenly find themselves saddled with the all-too-adult task of caring for a dying parent. Following the death of his live-in girlfriend and a rather unsightly “incident,” Lenny is entrusted to the care of his estranged children, Wendy and Jon. A doctor informs them that their father is suffering from Parkinson’s disease, and it’s decided (despite Wendy’s protests) that he should be placed in a senior home to live out his remaining time. From here on out, the narrative trajectory more or less plays the waiting game, as the three main characters must learn to tolerate each other until the elder Savage passes.

Laura Linney, Philip Bosco and Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Savages
Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Savages

The performances are strong across the board, particularly Hoffman’s portrayal of a self-insulating academic, and a surprisingly adept assortment of bit players who make up hospital staff and acquaintances. If one had to split hairs, the only misstep might be a somewhat miscast Laura Linney, whose flighty and unfocused character should have been reconceived to match Linney’s typically Type-A delivery. Despite this contextual disjuncture, Linney still knocks one out of the park, so it has little effect on the overall film and the expert interplay between the leads.

Given its subject matter, the film has much in common with “Away From Her”; Sarah Polley’s recent directorial debut about a man whose marriage inevitably fades as he loses his wife to Alzheimer’s. Both dig at the conflicting emotions loved ones experience in such circumstances, but unlike Polley’s elegiac storytelling, Jenkins imbues “The Savages” with a blunt and bitter honesty that is ultimately just as cathartic, if not more so.

In fact, the acting is so naturalistic and plot largely unreliant on shocks or gimmicks, it’s easy to forget how expertly written this film actually is. While “The Savages” doesn’t exactly break new ground, it does remind us how satisfying a simple film can be when it focuses on getting the basics right, and then keeping them all humming along in harmony. With such films just as lacking as they were when Jenkins released her debut feature, it’s evident that cinema still needs more artists like her.



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(Updated: 11/30/07 NJ)

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