by Jef Burnham
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The Savages is typical of the majority of independent films being released in America, falling back on the overworked tale of coping with family issues by coming together after many years of separation. The film hasn’t much to offer, unless you enjoy an implausible story soaked in rampant negativity.
The foremost fault of the film is that its premise, conceived by screenwriter/director Tamara Jenkins, is entirely unbelievable. It follows Jon and Wendy Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) as they discover that their abusive father, who abandoned them when they were children and hasn’t spoken to them in years, is suffering from dementia. They then try to balance their hectic lives as single writers and cope with their father’s care and his ever-worsening disease.
The problem is, if he was as abusive as he is made out to be in the film, and, indeed, abandoned them as children, how is it Jon and Wendy’s problem to ensure that he is provided for? Jon and Wendy’s answer to this question isn’t even addressed in subtext. They blindly accept it as their responsibility, and anyone with a similar deadbeat dad will understand this glaring flaw. We can barely get such men to pay child support in our country, and Jenkins has the audacity to make a film that asserts such deadbeat fathers should then be supported by their abandoned children.
Undoubtedly, the majority of filmgoers attending any screening of The Savages turned out solely to see Philip Seymour Hoffman, which is fortunate for them, since his performance is the only enjoyable aspect of the film. One can see from the naturalism and subtle detachment of Hoffman’s performance what initially drew him to the script, but it seems as though he was the only one making that particular film. Linney’s performance is wooden and she is unable to handle the comic aspects of the feature, though the character’s major flaws must be accredited to Jenkins. Wendy is a neurotic pill-popper in the midst of an affair with a married man, which is quite probably the most clichéd female characterization in modern cinema.
What should have been played off as dry, incidental quirkiness quickly turns into an over-exaggerated mockery of the audience, as we find ourselves in the opening scene being subjected to a team of older women in cheerleading uniforms doing a slow-motion, choreographed tap-dance in the streets of Sun City. Sun City is filmed in such a way that one cannot help but recall the style and cinematography of Edward Scissorhands, which directly contrasts the rest of the film in such a stand-offish manner that there is no sense of cohesion between the early and later portions of the film.
The Savages also suffers from a high degree of predictability. When the folks in the nursing home are treated to a screening of The Jazz Singer, the white characters all turn to look at the black characters when Al Jolson puts on his black-face make-up. We are all well aware that some classic film would be considered highly racist by today’s standards. Additionally, the ending is about as subtle as a mallet to the head, as the final shot is discernible from ten minutes earlier in the film and leaves the audience with nothing to ponder as the credits roll, because they had an entire sequence to think it over whilst they awaited the inevitable.
I would recommend this film only to die-hard Philip Seymour Hoffman fans.
Jef Burnham is a freelance writer and film critic in Chicago..
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