The Savages

"We're not gonna have to go out there and find him. We're not in a Sam Shepard play."

Screened at the 2007 Telluride Film Festival

The Savages exudes intelligence. From the mere presence of Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman — two of the smartest actors we can boast — to the characters they portray — witty, educated grown-ups — Tamara Jenkins’ sophomore outing is sharp, clear-eyed, uncondescending; a non-stop, non-guilty pleasure. It’s a comedy without schtick; a drama without syrup or contrivance; a date movie for adults.

Jenkins pairs Hoffman and Linney ostensibly as a comedy team, but neither approach the material as comedians might. (Given that they play siblings who have to deal with the dementia and imminent death of their not-quite-estranged father, that would have been difficult.) Instead, the laughs start to come almost imperceptibly, from our understanding of these characters’ relationship and history. There’s a scene where the two of them go to the hospital together for the first time, and Linney’s Wendy finds herself having to explain to their uncomprehending father that her brother is not a medical doctor, but rather a Ph.D. who teaches “theater of social unrest.” The desperation in her eyes as she pleads that “he’s doing a book on Bertolt Brecht” renders the exchange hilarious and very sad at the same time.

Jenkins and her cast excel at finding scathing, potent humor in situations that are, at least in the abstract, not funny at all. Watch the interplay between Wendy and —- in dealing with their father, —- preferring blunt forthrightness and the mortified, guilt-ridden Wendy insisting on gentle, roundabout cautiousness. At one point, they’re forced to grill dad about funeral arrangements; —-’s reluctant, persistent questioning (“Once we unplug you…” “I’m dead!” “What do we do with you?”) set against Wendy’s embarrassed hemming and hawing is, once again, funny in a way that kind of makes you want to cry. Dark comedy can hardly get any better.

Almost as remarkable is the fact that the laughs never seem cheap — even when a misguided tennis maneuver leaves —- pinned up against the wall in an elaborate neck brace, and Wendy tries to feed him a tuna melt, what’s funny is not even the gag so much as Hoffman’s eyes, and the way he moves his mouth in a quixotic attempt to chew. It’s funny because we know him, and like him — and because Wendy thinks it’s funny too. These two actors are so meticulous, their performances so nuanced, that to watch them for two hours is a privilege.

The Savages finds justice for its characters without resorting to sentimentality or mawkishness. Jenkins wraps up with an extraordinary final shot that, in another impressive duality, is incredibly poignant and hopeful at once. The movie is at least partly about finding ways to deal with death, and what Wendy figures out for herself, epitomized in those last frames, made me smile through tears.

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log

Snitch

Ric Roman Waugh, 2013

Score: C

Side Effects

Steven Soderbergh, 2013

Score: C+

10 Years

Jamie Linden, 2012

Score: B-

The Place Beyond the Pines

Derek Cianfrance, 2013

Score: B+

Warm Bodies

Jonathan Levine, 2013

Score: C

Beautiful Creatures

Richard LaGravanese, 2013

Score: B-

The Window

Ted Tetzlaff, 1949

Score: B+

The Chase

Arthur Ripley, 1946

Score: B

Street of Chance

Jack Hively, 1942

Score: C

The Taste of Money

Im Sang-Soo, 2013

Score: C+

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