- Rated R
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All photos © Fox Searchlight
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
riter/director Tamara Jenkins’ 1998 film, “Slums of Beverly Hills,” may not have been the most impressive debut feature, but it showed amazing potential from the up-and-comer, and even teased the idea that a future filled with women filmmakers wasn’t far off. If you were to ask people what had become of Jenkins after the film’s release, however, you’d probably see a lot of shrugged shoulders. It’s been nearly a decade since Jenkins first arrived on the scene, and since her debut, she’s done a whole lot of nothing. Or at least that’s what her résumé would suggest. Struggling to get several different projects off the ground during those eight-odd years, Jenkins has finally returned with a second feature – the adult dramedy “The Savages” – that, despite failing to match the critical hype surrounding it, still scores big thanks to its impressive cast and frighteningly mature setup.
The film stars Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Wendy and John Savage, two siblings struggling to get their lives together after being abandoned by their father Lenny (Philip Bosco) as teenagers. The Manhattan-based Wendy spends her days applying for writing grants at the temp agency where she works, and her nights involved in an intimate affair with a married man (Peter Friedman), but she’s yet to eclipse the success of her older brother John, who teaches theater at a college in Buffalo and pens books on such obscure subjects as Bertolt Brecht. When Lenny’s live-in girlfriend kicks the bucket, however, Wendy and John travel out to Sun City, Arizona to discuss their father’s living arrangements. What they don’t realize is that Lenny’s just been diagnosed with dementia, and in order to figure out how they’re going to take care of him, the Savages are forced to live under the same roof for the first time in years.
While not nearly as dark as Noah Baumbach’s “Margot at the Wedding,” there is a certain similarity between both films; namely the selfishness of the main characters. Fortunately, the Savages aren’t social monsters like Margot – they’re just dealing with a personal disaster that many adults are forced to go through at some point in their lives. Jenkins' script is quick to acknowledge the difference, and in doing so, perfectly portrays the awkwardness and hardships of taking care of a dying parent. Laura Linney delivers yet another fine performance as the film’s main protagonist, but it often comes off as being too subtle when compared to the more radical turns by Hoffman and Bosco. The former is hilarious as the emotionally cold brother (a competitor at heart who refuses to believe that his sister would be awarded a Guggenheim writing grant before him), while Bosco absolutely nails every tiny detail involved in playing a dementia patient.
It’s too bad that the film itself can’t match the level of quality in its performances – a common occurrence this year that will surely result in a very unlikely group of Best Picture nominees. Jenkins does an excellent job of creating memorable moments (both funny and touching), but the overall story is a little dull in comparison. The film’s 113-minute runtime is just too long for what amounts to a straightforward tale about two siblings and their dying father, and though random scenes – like the one in which Lenny hosts a movie night of “The Jazz Singer” at the predominantly black-run nursing home – are darkly comical, they’re completely unessential to the story. This may be the film’s biggest downfall, because while Jenkins has loaded her script with plenty of great scenes, there’s nothing of real substance to connect those moments into a great movie. It’s a learning process, for sure, but here’s hoping Jenkins figures out how to iron out the wrinkles before her next project, and, perhaps more importantly, that she doesn’t take another eight years to do so.
Single-Disc DVD Review:
Much like its quiet theatrical bow, the single-disc release of “The Savages” will only attract diehard fans. The EPK-styled making-of featurette (“About the Savages”) is interesting, but ultimately too self-important, while the included extended scenes have probably been included just to appease those involved. Rounding out the DVD extras is a behind-the-scenes photo gallery (“Director’s Snapshots”) and a handful of trailers pimping upcoming Fox releases.