Saturday, January 12, 2008

We'll All Float On

With its picturesque opening shots of well kept lawns, white pickets fences, blue skies, and sunshine, Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages begins like a typical foray into the depths of suburbia. The purposefully cliche shots are reminiscent of the timeless opening to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, except that the infamous bugs are replaces by a dance line of senior citizens. This is Lumberton for a new age and with a new focus. Far from the battle between darkness and light in Blue Velvet, the world created in The Savages is an assured vision of aging, discontent, and rehabilitation in modern America.

Opening in the sunlit suburbs of Sun City, Arizona, Lenny Savage (Lenny Bosco) is an old man who is disconnected from his children in and has been living with his girlfriend for the past twenty years. Treated poorly by an in-home health assistant, Lenny, who is diagnosed with Parkinson’s-like symptoms, begins to react outrageously. When his girlfriend suddenly dies while getting her nails done, his children, Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a college professor, and Wendy (Laura Linney), an unpublished playwright living in New York City, have to come Arizona and to take care of him. Due to certain circumstances, Lenny is unable to stay in Arizona and must be taken to a nursing home in Jon’s hometown of Buffalo. The stage seems to be set for a pretentious, uber-intellectual diseased family battle where the kids fight over dad while he dies and they settle their differences to discover the meaning of life and importance of family. Luckily, Jenkins’ superb script avoids the obvious pitfalls, and rather utilizes the basic plot set up to play with the narrative devices within the story which help construct surprisingly powerful scenes throughout that are taken to great heights by three great performances. Although there seems to be little “buzz” for Bosco’s performance, if he is not nominated for an Academy Award it is a straight up crime. His work in two particular scenes, one involving a confrontation with his children in a diner and another involving a movie screening at the nursing home, is as striking as any other performance seen this year.

While avoiding the sentimentality found in this genre is a great asset, The Savages also avoid missteps in its darkly comic moments that could de-naturalize the film. The misleading trailer sets the wrong comic tone in regards to what the film is all about and works to simplify the film’s magnitude. The comic elements work very well within the film, but are used sparingly and never as forced as the trailer makes them seem. This all greatly benefits the comic effectiveness of the film. The Savages lets the characters develop in such a way that the dark humor slyly blends in with moments of despair and betrayal. When Wendy reveals her source of income to Jon late in the film, the moment is all at once sincere, maddening, and hysterical if only because it is so believable. The Savages builds to these terrific moments that pay off terrifically because the script is so patient with every step it takes. This could lead to the film being a little bit “slow”, but the scenes never drag and the each moment is so true in the world that Jenkins builds that by the time the final euphoric moment is shown, tears of sad happiness will likely be welling up.

Far from the politics heavy joy ride the trailer makes it out to be, The Savages is a more solid meditation on the impacts of dementia with infinitely more impact than this year’s other dementia film Away From Her. It may be because the film’s charms and emotional depth work so subtly that the effect is constantly more surprising and, in many ways, completely befuddling. Though Away From Her is a good film (and, arguably, less concerned with dementia than aging love) The Savages has more immediacy, urgency, and hope for rehabilitation that make it the more compelling, dynamic, and definitive film. The Savages has numerous elements other than Lenny’s dementia, particularly the relationship and competition between Jon and Wendy to publish their work, whether it be Jon’s holiday friendly book on dark comedy in Brecht or Wendy’s subversive, semi-autobiographical play. It is Lenny’s situation that serves as the catalyst to open up the film, rather than limit itself as seems to be the case in Away From Her.

Although Lenny is diagnosed with Parkinsons-like ailments rather than Alzheimers, The Savages focuses on dementia, which somehow brings the illnesses together without simplifying the effects they have. This meditation is reminiscent of Jonathan Franzen’s profoundly powerful essay “My Father’s Brain”, following his own battle with his father’s battle with Alzheimers. The Savages works as a fitting follow up and compliment to Franzen’s essay by extending the personal issues that children fight while their parents struggle to keep on living.

With its wide ranging scope, wonderful performances, and sly humor, The Savages manages to be many things at once without detracting from the importance of the film’s message. Jenkins shuffles so many different elements within the script, yet each one pays off in giving the film great depth and impact. As obvious as it may sound, it takes a lot to discover that no matter the circumstances that must be faced as the savages of the world, the only way to succeed and survive is to reevaluate, rehabilitate, and then battle on into the sunset.

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