With a trio of incredible film performances — Charlie Wilson's War, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, and, now, The Savages — it's truly the season of Philip Seymour Hoffman.
These releases show Hoffman's incomparable range but his underplayed turn in The Savages may be his most impressive yet.
It took 10 years for Tamara Jenkins to follow up on her bittersweet debut, The Slums of Beverly Hills, and her long-gestating sophomore effort is another bittersweet X-ray of dysfunctional family relations. Despite the obvious similarities in tone and style, however, The Savages brings with it a greater sense of craft and nuance. Some of that is in Jenkins' keenly observed writing and mordant subject matter but most comes from the fascinating, three-dimensional performances of stars Laura Linney and Hoffman.
The plot is simple: A father who never took care of his children forces them to find a way to take care of him … and, ultimately, themselves. Sibling would-be writers, University of Buffalo theater professor Jon Savage (Hoffman) and failed Manhattan playwright Wendy Savage (Linney) are suddenly called to retrieve their long estranged father, Lenny (the terrific Philip Bosco), after his longtime girlfriend dies. Traveling from wintry New York to warm Sun City, Ariz., they find him in hospital restraints, suffering from dementia and Parkinson's. With few options, they decide to bring the old man home and check him into a nearby nursing home. To help with the transition, Wendy decides to spend the holidays on her brother's couch and a lifetime of guilt, disappointment and hard truths rears its ugly head.
It's also a minor-key comedy. Darkly humorous, The Savages is more a story of details than plot, as Jenkins paints a crumpled portrait of neurotic middle age introspection, brittle relationships and human dignity. It could almost be accused of "middle-class whining" — something Linney's character frets about in her own work — if not for its sharply observant conversations and strikingly personal performances.
Linney and Hoffman bring the kind of understated, lived-in, textured performances that turn genre into real life, never once manipulating our emotions. Neurotic disasters both, they speak honestly and authentically, expressing their fears and obsessions while defending their sore spots. As a family, these people don't really know each other but they do the best they can.
Jenkins crafts small encounters with reality that we can identify with and despite some cutesy moments with pets and the insular aspirations of theater people (a rarified bunch if ever there were one), she gets the specifics right. Whether it's the annoying drone of hospital room TVs, Hoffman's embarrassing choice for "movie night," or Linney's insensitive decision to remove her father's suspenders (with quietly humiliating results), The Savages has the constant ring of truth.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].