Fox Searchlight Pictures
Now Showing at: Mariemont Theatre.
Review by: Larry Thomas
The recipe-du-jour for lots of movies these days is the quintessential dysfunctional family and / or the aging process affecting a family member. Some can be really funny, like Little Miss Sunshine. Others can be sensitive and heartbreaking, as in Away From Her, which will likely snag another Oscar nomination for the great Julie Christie.
Then there is a film called The Savages that advertises itself as funny, makes attempts at sensitive and heartbreaking, and end up being a mess of a stew that has the potential to leave the viewer feeling incredibly depressed.
The cast is splendid. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney play siblings who don’t always communicate. Hoffman is a PhD who teaches drama at the college level in Boston. His attempt at finding a publisher for a new book about Bertold Brecht has gone nowhere. He is lousy at relationships, and has just broken up with his latest love, who must return to Denmark because her visa expired. Linney lives in New York and keeps trying to secure funding to produce a play based on her own dysfunctional family. She is involved in an affair with a married neighbor who lives upstairs.
Out of nowhere, their father re-enters the picture. Philip Bosco plays the elder Savage, and he’s fine in the role. Bosco has been living in Sun City Arizona with his live-in companion of 20 years, although his kids really had no idea where he was. She dies, and her kids evict him from the house. He’s also showing signs of deepening Alzheimer’s.
Hoffman and Linney take him back to Boston to go into a nursing home.
Despite the terrific performers, the characters, story, and situations weigh on the whole proceedings like an elephant sitting on egg. If the filmmaker, writer-director Tamara Jenkins, wanted to find out how to make this script funny, she should have watched Carl Reiner’s 1970 oddball film Where's Poppa, in which George Segal has to put senile mother Ruth Gordon in a nursing home. It has a lot of the same elements of The Savages, but actually manages to wring some laughs out of what is generally an unpleasant situation for all concerned.
Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman are among the best actors in film today. They are capable of fully investing themselves in any role, and are, in many instances, the best thing about the films in which they appear.
The Savages is the ultimate affirmation of that observation. They are wonderful, but the film tries too hard to be too many things, which means nothing really gels.