As their estranged father Lenny (Bosco) sinks into senility in an Arizona retirement village, Wendy (Linney) and Jon (Hoffman) Savage are forced to figure out how to care for the dad who never cared for them.
Over the past ten years - from The Daytrippers to Little Miss Sunshine - a new sub-genre has replaced the bank-heist-gone-wrong as the set text of US ‘indie’ cinema. Call it The Dysfunctional Family Picaresque; those quirky coming-of-age comedies in which flawed moms, dads and kids find their life path and learn to love each other’s quirks.
Tamara Jenkins kickstarted it with her 1998 directorial debut, Slums Of Beverly Hills, and during a ten-year quietus she’s evidently studied the genre’s evolution closely, and likes not what she sees. The Savages opens with a cutesy image of retirement life - a geriatric chorus line emerging from sun-dappled hedges to the strains of Peggy Lee’s I Don’t Want To Play In Your Yard - but Jenkins quickly rubs our noses in reality, cutting to a distressed old man, chastised by the home help for “not flushing”, then smearing a rude word on the bathroom wall with said unflushed item. This is Lenny (Philip Bosco), a once-ornery father slipping into senility, whose ‘actions’ set in place a ‘What about Dad?’ crisis for his fortysomething kids, Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy (Laura Linney).
Eschewing broad strokes and primary colours, Jenkins draws on memories of her own father’s dementia to construct a dark and gritty comedy about families, senility, loneliness and mortality, centred around two troubled lead characters. Jon is an insular, ill-kempt theatre professor out in the minor-league greyness of Buffalo, NY; Wendy a nervy, unfulfilled Manhattan temp still trying to make it as a playwright. Both are stuck, like their Peter Pan namesakes, in a childish Neverland.
Linney and Hoffman have played similar characters before, but never with such care and delicacy. The scene where they share a ratty tuna melt, while Hoffman is immobilised by a makeshift chin-sling attached to the bedroom door, is both a perfect comic vignette and a glimpse of two locked-down souls finally connecting. While no film about parental care set in the depths of a Buffalo winter is ever going to have the belly-laughs of Knocked Up, The Savages makes a virtue of its sidetracked setting, finding scuffed humour in the minutiae of human life, so that when the laughs do come they feel profound, jagged and real.
A richly nuanced American comedy, with two acting talents working at their absolute peak.