For those who have had the displeasure of tending to a mentally deteriorating loved one in the final stages of life, "The Savages" will hit you like a ton of bricks -- a ton of genuine, frank, painfully funny bricks.
Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins ("Slums of Beverly Hills"), returning to the screen after nearly a decade, "The Savages" deals with such an uncomfortable subject with pitch-black humor, precision, bluntness and, most of all, grace.
Wendy Savage (Laura Linney), an aspiring playwright who works mostly as a temp, calls her college-professor big brother Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) one night with some distressing news. She received a message on her answering machine that their father (Philip Bosco) is officially entering dementia, going so far as leaving not-so-nice messages for caretakers on his bathroom mirror -- written in his fecal matter. The Savage siblings have to pick up big papa and take him back to New York, dredging up the resentful old wounds and painful memories that made this family such a fractured, severed unit in the first place.
While "The Savages" forces its audience to look at the undeniable inevitability of death, Jenkins also deals with how, for some, living a life is virtually a Herculean task. Both Jon and Wendy live not so much in a state of arrested development but more like a postcollegiate limbo. Though both in that middle-age zone, they are unable to progress to that stage where they slide into a perfectly mature existence.
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Wendy is a neurotic mess covered in unmanageable brown hair. Serving as the 30-something mistress to a married man, she's so desperate for a connection that she'll lie about getting bad Pap smear results to get some special attention. Jon, who lives like a pedantic packrat, with piles of books and magazines he assures Wendy are all categorized, still can't get himself to make a commitment to his girlfriend -- even if that means she has to go back to Poland before she gets deported. Whatever the old man did to these two when they were young (his abusive parenting skills are hinted at throughout the flick), it doesn't make them eager to grow up like him.
Linney and Hoffman are remarkable at playing siblings who must grow up and take care of someone they're still not that crazy about. Bosco is quietly devastating as a man trying to grasp some last shred of dignity and self-respect, even when it seems to be a futile mission.
For me, the most pleasant casting surprise is Gbenga Akinnagbe, best known as Marlo Stanfield's quiet-yet-dangerous enforcer on HBO's "The Wire," as a Nigerian nursing-home staffer who gives Wendy some sage advice. Although the character itself seems superfluous and a tad cliched -- isn't the sight of a wise black man teaching silly white people what they already should know a trope that has worn out its welcome? -- the charismatic Akinnagbe makes his appearance worthwhile.
But with flaws and all, "The Savages" is irresistible. Honest and emotional without being schmaltzy and overdone, Jenkins gives us a dysfunctional-family dramedy that, unlike the other dysfunctional-family indie flicks that have surfaced over the past few months, feels the most real.