Tuesday, December 11, 2007

 

Going Gently (if not very Happily) into That Good Night

By Josh R
When it comes to aging parents and the grown children who have to care for them, whose position is the less enviable? When failing health enters into the equation, there are no easy choices — and even fewer prospects for a happy ending. This would be the case in even the most loving, well-adjusted of families. When the people in question are of the dysfunctional variety — both individually and collectively — it’s not exactly conducive to heroics. Even if the brother-and-sister pair memorably delineated by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney in The Savages weren’t faced with the challenges of dealing with a dying father, they wouldn’t be rolling in clover; since misery loves company, Dad’s infirmities only add to the weight of their already troubled existences. Entering the home stretch is no picnic — and as Tamara Jenkins’ darkly comic film suggests, groping one’s way through middle age isn’t that much better.


The family is, in fact, called the Savages. Even though its junior members belong to the rarefied world of academia and high culture — conversations are peppered with references to Bertholt Brecht and Josef von Sternberg — they’re living up to their name in other ways. The trouble begins — or rather, intensifies — when Wendy, a self-professed playwright who supports herself by doing temp work, gets the distressing news that her estranged father (Philip Bosco) has been acting out by smearing his feces on the walls of his Arizona home. Although her brother John — a sad sack college professor who cries when his girlfriend, a Polish scholar who will be leaving him as soon as her visa expires, fixes him eggs — dryly advises his distraught sibling that they’re “not in a Sam Shepard play,” matters quickly progress from bad to worse; they’re not exactly bound for Shepard country, but for someplace just as difficult to negotiate. Figuring out what to do with Dad — an ornery old cuss rapidly sinking into dementia due to the onslaught of Parkinson’s disease — is a tricky proposition, offering no comfortable solutions. It doesn’t help that as a father, Lenny Savage was neglectful at best and abusive at worst; in addition to the guilt his children feel about being unable and unwilling to care for him properly, neither is insensible to the bitter irony of taking on responsibility for someone who never really took care of them.

If the film sounds lugubrious to an extreme, writer-director Jenkins provides enough flashes of sharp gallows humor to keep the proceedings from becoming unrelentingly bleak. Not that the approach is always entirely successful. There are times when The Savages’ systemic morbidity makes for a rather plodding affair — even though Jenkins is able to bring out the humor in pathos in unexpected ways (and vice versa), the film as a whole could have used more in the way of variety. It also smacks of some of the pretensions that are particular to the world of independent filmmaking; while a fine example of the genre, there is a sense of ennui that comes with witnessing the trials and tribulations of yet another batch of quirky dysfunctionals muddling their way through life in dysfunctionally quirky fashion. The plonkety-plonking score, which suggests both a sad brand of whimsy and a crestfallen synthesizer comparing notes with a clinically depressed xylophone, seems to have been a feature of every indie-family-drama of the past ten years; it’s practically a prerequisite. Those reservations aside, the film is well-written and ultimately very moving — it grows on one as the action progresses, handling its sensitive subject matter in a way that is never less than believable. Whatever minor flaws the film has are compensated for by the performances of the principals, who are uniformly excellent. With his rumpled, hangdog look and bone-dry delivery, Hoffman subtly suggests the deep-seated anger and inability to forgive that informs his character’s seeming passivity; while I sometimes find his whiny monotone and consistent underplaying a bit too method-actorish for my taste, in this, as in Owning Mahowny, the approach pays off. Laura Linney’s triumphs usually come in twos — in 2004 she scored twin knockouts with Kinsey and P.S., and in 2007, she repeats the feat. Jindabyne, a little-seen film which can (and should) be seen in its recent DVD release, cast her in a more darkly dramatic mode, while The Savages allows her to display a brittle, defensive humor that makes her character’s neuroticism all the more compelling. In both films, the bracing intelligence which has distinguished her best work is present and accounted for (and when you factor in her well-received supporting turns in Breach and The Nanny Diaries, she’s probably broken some record of Julianne Moore’s). Bosco, a veteran stage actor, is pitch-perfect as the regressed tyrant who, through the fog of his hazy confusion, can glean just enough of his offspring’s unspoken recrimination to understand just how friendless his predicament is. When Dylan Thomas famously urged his ailing father “Do not go gentle into that good night; Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” he wasn’t speaking of a parent who was made acutely aware of the extent to which he’d failed in respect to those duties. Sometimes, the light provides the only comfort that there is — in The Savages, the departure from the world of the living is ultimately a gentle one, if inescapably colored by bitter shades of regret.


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