By Ray Pride
Note-perfect, Tamara Jenkins’ “The Savages” puts all too much American moviemaking to shame. I’ve written about her second feature a lot since its Sundance debut in January, but it’s solid: life is undeniably funny, even in its most uncomfortable moments, and Jenkins’ screenplay and direction offer a stellar showcase for the substantial Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laura Linney and Philip Bosco.
Witty about neurosis and unblinking about mortality, her long-in-coming second feature (after “The Slums Of Beverly Hills” almost a decade ago) is an unlikely fusion of the comedic precision of “Annie Hall” and the melancholy humanism of “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” however unlikely a combination that may sound. It’s grown-up stuff: Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney are estranged siblings brought together by the need to put their father (Philip Bosco) in assisted living—the film boasts some of the most formidable comic dialogue of the year, and Jenkins’ screenplay is lovingly structured. A sampling of her ear for dialogue: “We’re not in therapy right now, we’re in real life” and “I’m not leaving you alone, I’m hanging up.”
The Savages are a scattered clan. Father Lenny (Philip Bosco) approaches his own sunset in Sun City, Arizona; semi-estranged daughter Wendy (Laura Linney) is a New York playwright who, after many years, is surviving on temp jobs; and her brother, Jon, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is an academic, struggling with an epic book on Brecht. The two siblings are brought together after their father acts out against his nurse in a scatological way and they have to find him a new home, whether their own, or in assisted living. There are nuanced side characters and witty bits, but “The Savages” belongs to these three performers, at the top of their considerable game.
Jenkins based her observation on personal experience. “There’s something about taking old people and putting them in buildings and not dealing with them,” she told me this summer, “the sort of savagery of old age and the way it ravages you and strips you of anything that would be perceived as civilized.”
Even at its most honest moments about the dying of the light, Jenkins is terrific with tone. “It’s scary. Tone is just the trickiest thing in the world. So many ingredients have to accumulate to create tone,” she says. “It could be music, it could be the tone of the comedy and the tragedy and how you let them live inside the same vessel and not undermine each other but instead support each other. I’m very attracted to holding funny and sad [together]. It’s an accumulation of all these little details that you are putting into the same stew, hoping that you can keep them within the same vocabulary and that [the result] is not jolting and melodramatic when it becomes serious. As long as the material is truly driven from character, if it truly is organically growing out of character, you can get away with it.”
The larger feeling I took away from the movie is the evocation of two siblings approaching early middle age who are still unformed as people. They’re still incomplete. I wondered if Jenkins thought in these larger themes or simply let them emerge. “It’s about how quickly you become conscious of what you are doing. I feel like the whole process of writing is a sort of being unconscious and then becoming conscious. Unconscious, conscious. If you are too pre-determined at the beginning then you are writing an essay [instead of just] letting it go and then interpreting the tea leaves of all this stuff that [bubbles] up.”
You’re putting things on a clothesline, but you wouldn’t see any relationship unless they were all pinned there together. “Yeah, filmmaking is so like that anyway because that’s all you’re doing, putting one shot next to another shot, one frame next to another frame. The form is structured like that. But there was a conscious moment at a certain point [in the writing] about those siblings being kind of like Hansel and Gretel. You know that book, that Bruno Bettelheim book, [“The Uses of Enchantment”], I’ve had it forever. There’s something brilliant about that book. I remember working on the script and there were many siblings, a whole crew of them. I was stripping it away and then I came up with the idea of just these two going on this journey, and then I was like, oh, like Hansel and Gretel! I grabbed Bruno Bettelheim and wrote in my notebook something like, “their journey through old-age land.”
So it’s a terrible fairy tale unfolding in front of them? “Yes. Bettelheim talks about how that story is about confronting mortality and that Hansel and Gretel are thrown out of the house into the woods and into the darkness. They lose their parents and have to make their own way. And I was like, oh, that’s what this is, they’re thrown into this surreal weird world of old-age land. It became the way they became grownups, or truly whole people, complete people, which is sort of what Bettelheim talks about, individuating and stuff like that. It was an interesting little guiding principle, ‘Oh yeah, they’re like these neurotic modern Hansel and Gretel. Yeah!’”
“The Savages” opens Friday.