Sometimes the movies that most stir our emotions are the ones that don't strain for effect. Writer/director Tamara Jenkins' The Savages had me from the opening credits, a tour through a sun-dappled retirement community set to a mournful Peggy Lee ballad.
That sequence, while powerfully effective, is the first and last time the movie will deploy any self-conscious stylistic tricks, will indulge in easy irony. In the first scene, we're introduced to Leonard Savage, a cranky but pitiable, somewhat unreadable old man. His defiance of a supercilious home health aid in this scene seems somewhat understandable, but we don't know the back story. In fact, we never will.
Tedious exposition is avoided in The Savages. We meet Leonard as he is, and never fully learn his past. When we are introduced to his adult children, Wendy and Jon, summoned to take care of him as his mental condition deteriorates, we witness the basics of their lives, but are never told how they arrived in these states. Wendy is an aspiring playwright slaving at temp jobs to pay the bills. Jon is a college professor writing a dissertation on Bertolt Brecht. Wendy has a cat, a ficus and a pathetic sexual relationship with a married neighbor. Jon's Polish girlfriend is returning to her homeland. Both are on the younger side of middle age, and profoundly unfullfilled.
There's no real plot; Wendy and Jon place their father in a nursing home. She moves in with her brother temporarily, the two of them essentially waiting for him to die. Clearly the old man abused Jon, possibly Wendy as well. At the very least, he was distant, and his children are a bit chilly with each other as well. Not hostile, just unsociable--neither of them quite know how to relate to the larger world.
The drama, then, comes not from plot developments--Leonard's death is a given--but from small, telling details, the little jabs a brother and sister take at each other, some in jest, some to hurt. We see them behave at their worst, and we see them realize it. We see how the years of separation have done nothing to break their silent, unspoken bonds. The movie never makes it explicit, but gradually they realize their father's death is what it takes to make Wendy, at thirty-eight, and Jon, at forty-two, finally accept adulthood.
Jenkins' script is a thing of beauty, with the minute detail and psychological depth of fine fiction, and the performances are amazing. Laura Linney as Wendy and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Jon are so absolutely real, you never doubt their familial connection for a second--these two truly seem to have a history together, decades of resentment and misunderstanding, yet a shared intimacy as well. They know each other as well as they know themselves, for better or worse.
Occasionally Jenkins lets a shot last a beat or two longer than necessary, but she establishes a great sense of reality, of actual, felt life. There are no revelatory speeches, no cathartic climaxes, just two people trying to figure out how to live their lives. Plus there's a kitty, and Kurt Weill on the soundtrack. How could I not love this?