In the rush and multiple pressures of life, siblings often lose track of each other. Sometimes this essential bond has to be severed because of too much pain from the past. Other times brothers and sisters lose touch because of distance or a lack of energy and incentive to keep in touch. Whatever the reason, as they get older, many siblings drift further apart. But often they are forced to renegotiate their relationships when they become the caregivers for their aged parents. Many times, they are unprepared for the challenges which face them and their parents.
That is certainly the case with Wendy (Laura Linney) and Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the middle-age brother and sister in Tamara Jenkins' film The Savages. Here is engrossing drama that is at once funny and sad in its exploration of the sibling bond and the end-of-life issues that confront us all whether or not we have planned for them.
Wendy Savage is a struggling New York playwright who supports herself with temp jobs. She is having an affair with a married man, Larry (Peter Friedman), a neighbor who shares her fondness for animals. He has a dog, and she has a cat. Her life in Manhattan is upended when she gets a call from Arizona about her elderly father, Lenny (Philip Bosco), who is suffering from dementia and acting out his anger in attention-getting ways. Wendy calls her older brother, Jon, a college theatre arts professor who is writing a book on the work of Bertolt Brecht. He lives in Buffalo and has a Polish girlfriend who is about to leave the country because he hasn't married her.
When the woman Lenny has been living with in Sun City dies, Wendy and Jon fly out to see what they can do. They learn that the woman's family wants Lenny out of the house, and they have no legal recourse to even receive some of the assets from its sale. It doesn't help that neither of them has ever been close to their domineering and abusive father. They both have carried psychological wounds for years and now find themselves facing a new side of their father: a vulnerable old man who doesn't know where he is or what has happened to him.
Writer and director Tamara Jenkins explored a dysfunctional family in her 1998 film The Slums of Beverly Hills. Here she has honed her screenwriting skills to create two middle-age characters who are forced to deal with each other and their father's mortality. The real power of The Savages is the razor-sharp depiction of the messy lives of Wendy and Jon. She pops pain killers to make it through the day and feels that her academically accomplished brother lacks respect for her writing talent. When he finds a nursing home for their father in Buffalo, Wendy thinks it is too shabby and wants to transfer him to a more upscale facility. This triggers in Jon his old resentment of her ability to make him into the selfish and uncaring family villain. It is fascinating to watch them play out old tapes with each other.
Even more revealing is the film's portrait of life in the nursing home and family members' mixed feelings about these institutions. Wendy and Jon are at a loss for what to do when they attend a support group for families of someone with dementia. Wendy does connect with a male Nigerian nurse (Gbenga Akinnagbe) who looks after her father; in a touching scene, he tells her about a sign of impending death. She fixes up her father's room in an attempt to make it a more pleasant place. Jon lectures her that these places are all the same, and by same, he means that people go there to die.
In another telling scene, Jon and Wendy take Lenny to a public diner and proceed to ask him questions about what he wants if he goes into a coma and whether he prefers cremation or burial. Our hearts go out to them as they try to do the right thing for their father but usually muck it up in one way or another. Hoffman and Linney give very appealing performances as this fumbling brother and bumbling sister whose forced reunion brings them closer together than they have ever been before.
We need to heed the call of our kin and to do what we can to strengthen this deep connection. For we need each other not only to take care of our elderly parents but to see each other through our old age.
Special DVD features include "About The Savages"; Director's Snapshots; and a deleted scene: "Burt and Lizzie Uncut."