Friday, November 21, 2008

The Savages (2007)

In his book Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith, Eric Jacobsen argues that "our sprawling car culture" is a contributing factor to the outsourcing of the elderly. "When people get too old to drive...they must be driven to doctor's appointments, on shopping trips or to visit their family. The practice of putting the elderly into retirement homes is a relatively recent phenomenon." In other words, for all the benefits of independence provided by the prevalence of automobiles and suburban sprawl, their rise has coincided with increasing generational segregation and lack of independence for our parents and grandparents. It's no coincidence that "retirement communities" were unheard of before the 1950s. In the old days an elderly person could stay in the neighborhood where essentials of life were within walking distance, and there was a family and/or community to look out for them. Jacobsen notes, "it's ironic that our love for independence has led us to create dependent classes among our citizenry."

I thought about Jacobsen's thesis while watching The Savages, written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, and starring Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as adult siblings forced to deal with the onset of dementia in their father (Philip Bosco). The movie doesn't directly critique the above trends -- though the title must be a wry comment -- but it provocatively yet compassionately portrays the dilemmas faced by so many. At the least, I think it will cause most viewers to conclude that there must be a better way, that community and family mean something more than this.

Jon and Wendy Savage aren't exactly failures, but they're not shining examples of success either. 42-year-old Jon teaches theater in Buffalo and is writing a book about Bertolt Brecht (this leads to the prettiest musical cue in the film -- Lotte Lenya singing "Salomon-Song" from The Threepenny Opera). 39-year-old Wendy works for a temp agency in Manhattan while trying to get funding for her "subversive, semi-autobiographical play" about her childhood "Wake Me When It's Over". She's also having an affair with a married man, Larry (Peter Friedman), who brings his oversized dog along for trysts in Wendy's tiny apartment. Jon is romantically involved with a Polish emigre (played affectingly by the lovely Cara Seymour) but can't find it in his heart to make her his wife and thus spare her from having to return to Kraków when her visa expires. As will become clear, it's a familiar paradigm of relational dysfunction being passed down. Dad is just as complicit as the kids in this unfolding mini-tragedy. Which brings us to Lenny.

Leonard "Lenny" Savage has lost touch with Jon and Wendy (and vice-versa) since moving to Sun Valley, Arizona with his "companion" Doris. They live in a pastel-colored house overlooking the eighth tee, but neither of them is in any shape to be swinging a club anymore. This retirement dream has turned into a tragicomic nightmare. The film begins with Lenny resisting Eduardo, the home health aid, with pranks of a, shall we say, scatalogical nature. He ends up in the hospital, and it's then that this mutual voluntary estrangement of parent and children ends with a phone call (as it often does) from Doris's daughter. Turns out dad may have Parkinson's. Whatever it is, life is about to change for all of them. Shortly after, Doris drops dead while getting her nails done, and Lenny is left homeless since the house goes to Doris's kids. There follows an effectively poignant scene -- as Wendy stuffs her father's belongings into a suitcase, a realtor tempts another group of retirees with the beautiful views of the eighth tee. Ah, vanity! an ancient sage once said.

The Savages is really a road-trip movie. The journey from Sun Valley to Valley View nursing home in Buffalo is full of portent and symbolism. For Lenny, it's the end of the road. For Jon and Wendy its a chance for some hard-won reconciliation. New beginnings? You can decide. Some of what follows may remind viewers of the overrated Little Miss Sunshine, but this is a vastly better and more satisfying film than that one. I wasn't familiar with Tamara Jenkins before, but I'm a big fan now. Of course its hard to go wrong with two actors as talented as Linney and Hoffman. I don't think either is capable of a bad performance. They thoroughly inhabit their characters, so important in a character-driven piece like this one. Usually, a dramatic comedy (or is it a comedic drama) of this size and scope is visually rather pedestrian. There's nothing wrong with that. You don't want the "wow factor" of the camera work to get in the way. The biggest surprise and a bonus of The Savages is how beautifully and inventively it was shot. Kudos to DP Mott Hupfel and Ms. Jenkins. There are many visual moments that linger in my mind, including one sun-drenched shot at Niagara Falls.

Good art should inspire constructive introspection. The Savages does this. How does one "honor thy father and thy mother" in cases like this? Off the top of my head I can think of several friends and co-workers who are heroically trying to care for an elderly or sick parent or grandparent who can't care for themself. And as my wife and I look forward to the birth of our son, I wonder, how will he care for me if the time comes when I can't care for myself? Will he do it out of obligation, or love? Or not at all? I'm guessing that a lot of that depends on the job I do as a father. In the film, it's clear that Leonard Savage was far from a model father. As Jon angrily asserts to Wendy, "we're taking care of the old man a lot better than he ever took care of us!" Jon and Wendy don't come off looking like heroes, but whether motivated by guilt or obligation, they try to do right by the old man. Some might say they treated him better than he deserved. It's complicated. It's a family thing.


redeyespy said...

I've avoided this one for some obvious reasons, but now I am really eager to see it!

redeyespy said...

Saw it. Excellent. Perfect review, Stephen. Some of the most natural acting I've seen in a while, too.