Writer/director Tamara Jenkins has succeeded in doing the near-impossible: Making a bittersweet dramatic comedy out of the nightmare that adult children face dealing with a dying dysfunctional parent.
And this parent, Lenny Savage played with documentary realism by Philip Bosco, is not only dysfunctional because he is suffering dementia. As a lifelong deadbeat dad, he has left more than deep scars in the psyches of his 40-somenthing children, Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy (Laura Linney). He has left open wounds, which refuse to heal. Now after a midnight wakeup call from a caregiver, they find themselves in the position of doing far more for him than he ever did for them.
Flying from the east coast where Jon is a professor and Wendy a struggling playwright, the siblings discover Dad under restraints in an Arizona hospital after some profane finger-painting with his feces. His longtime girlfriend is dead and her middle-aged children are selling the house she shared with Lenny…a house to which he has no legal claim.
Wendy watches over Dad, as Jon heads back to Buffalo to enroll him in a nursing home near his teaching job. Wendy struggles with her denial of the extreme degree of Dad's dementia. But when he drops his drawers in public on the flight east, Wendy begins to get the message.
While Dad's dilemma is dealt with in chilling detail, the focus is really on the often comic pain between the siblings, once abandoned by both parents and still lost like Hansel and Gretel in search of role models. Jon cries when his illegal immigrant girlfriend Kasia (Cara Seymour), makes him breakfast, though his refusal to marry her sends her packing for Poland. Wendy has daily emotionless trysts with married man Larry (Peter Friedman), but appears more closely connected to his dog, her cat and even a plant.
The comedy is subtle and a welcome relief in this world of misery. As in "Little Miss Sunshine," it shows how humor can be the glue that holds families together.
Hoffman gives his patented pustule of pain performance putting him on an Oscar-bound roll this year ("Before the Devil Knows You're Dead", "Charlie Wilson's War"). However, Linney breaks new ground by eliciting laughs along the edges of dramatic intensity. Never has she been so funny, yet so sad.
"The Savages" is a film that should be seen, though many may avoid it as they hide from the inevitability of nursing homes and death. But the comic eggshells that filmmaker Jenkins deftly supplies, make it easier for audiences to face the real thing.