Jon and Wendy Savage, like indie cutouts, are the products of a damaging childhood, and so it doesn’t require a phone call about their estranged father’s dementia to bring them back to the past. The names Jon and Wendy probably refer to the children of J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” a story about never growing up. But “The Savages” is not the indie movie about a dysfunctional family you might have expected. It explores an issue our culture largely ignores. After your parents mess you up, after analysis, it turns out it’s your turn to take care of your parents. Though the film’s characters are well-read, making references to Josef von Sternberg and Sam Shepard, and psychologically damaged, this does not propel them down a road to finding out who they really are and realizing their full potential. Well, maybe just a little.
“The Savages” dark humor is at times brilliant, especially at the beginning. Wendy (Laura Linney), who is mired in an “unhealthy” affair with a married man tells him she doesn’t want to have sex on the floor like they used to because “it’s middle-aged and depressing” and makes her “want to cry.” After her brother Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) breaks up with his girlfriend, he and Wendy play tennis, and she yells out across the court, “Was it emotional?”
Jon and Wendy venture to the desert somewhere on the West Coast to retrieve their sick father and put him in a nursing home back on the East Coast. The old lump of man lives in a city that is depicted as a surreal geriatric weigh station. The elderly do pool exercises with grins across their faces as Sinatra plays in the background. This tragicomedy offers up a devastating vision of what life amounts to that really hits home. But moments of cleverness are not enough to make a clever film, and “The Savages” fails to realize its lofty ambitions as the film progresses.
Writer and director Tamara Jenkins (“Slums of Beverly Hills”) doesn’t explain the Savages’ scary childhood story with flashbacks or emotional confessions. We simply witness the family act, which isn’t so bad: Laura Linney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman both deliver very memorable performances. In a recent NPR interview Laura Linney said that Jenkins’ script was pared down to perfection. In a world where scripts are “written to be financed,” the script stood out to her as “terrific” “because you don’t have to say things all the time; you can act them.” Stripped of extra dialogue, Jon and Wendy go about their normal lives. Jenkins’ depiction of these middle class neurotics is so precise that it seems they might just disappear into their off-camera lives, behind book shelves in their book-cluttered homes.
But Jenkins is no Antonioni. Unfortunately the film’s premise is not well-suited for this minimalist approach and doesn’t really deserve its astonishingly talented actors. “The Savages,” like last year’s “Little Miss Sunshine,” scrapes the surface of big issues. It has the courage to talk about the uncomfortable realities of estrangement, guilt and dissatisfaction but never lets its characters really experience, or think.
The film works really hard to acknowledge some of its own features, but these reflections about itself fail to cohere. Jenkins, thankfully, never tells us what actually happened to Jon and Wendy when they were kids, and the facts of the story aren’t important because, ultimately, this is the archetypal story. Wendy constantly describes her life as a fulfillment of clichés found in movies and books. She is also writing a semi-autobiographical play about her childhood. “The Savages” is about itself, that is, about art that deals with trauma.
Jon, a drama professor, is trying to write a book on Brecht, and the film spends a lot of time explaining his theories so that we might equate them with the film. News of his father’s death even reaches Jon right at the moment that he’s explaining the alienation effect to his bored students. I’m not exactly sure what Jenkins is trying to do here. Is “The Savages” supposed to be like a Brecht play in which awareness of the artifice of art leads to social consciousness? After Wendy drags Jon to look at a fancier nursing home, he makes one big speech about the fact that she is just the guilty party the death industry exploits. The messages aren’t too pivotal.
Wendy explains her play as boring, bourgeois complaining. By the end of “The Savages,” its self-consciousness only led me to ascribe these same elements to the film itself. An awareness of its faults does not make up for them. I left the film thinking, I know art can be more than this.