"Refreshingly bleak" is how I would describe The Savages, Tamara Jenkins' cold, hard look at a brother and sister trying to escort their resentful father through the dying process. I can't say I enjoyed the movie, but I liked it a lot and admired the way it kept refusing to find a ray of light in all that midwinter darkness, at least until the end. Little Miss Sunshine this ain't. And if you've ever had to care for an elderly parent who never particularly cared for you, you'll either want to run out and see the movie or run as fast as you can in the opposite direction. But I'll say this for Jenkins, who last brought us The Slums of Beverly Hills: She doesn't pull punches. And this is a family that knows how to throw a punch.
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney are the brother-and-sister act, a pair of theater professionals - he's a minor academic, she's a perpetually budding playwright - who've never quite recovered from the O'Neill play known as their childhood. Mom ran off, leaving Dad to administer the corporal punishment. And it's left the two of them in a state of arrested development, unable to commit to anyone. But when their estranged father (Philip Bosco), who's been passing the time in Sun City, starts to lose it, they're forced to care. So they shuffle him off to Buffalo, where Hoffman teaches, and stick him in a nursing home that he seems to think is a hotel. And thus begins the long ordeal of waiting for him to die. Unfortunately, he doesn't intend to go quietly.
The Savages is billing itself as a comedy, and the little-kiddie ditties on the soundtrack seem to "say" comedy, but don't expect the kind of comic uplift that Little Miss Sunshine doled out like antidepressants. And prepare yourself for a guided tour of Eldercare, USA, from the sun-bleached golf compounds of the Southwest to the sleet-pelted death factories of the Northeast. Jenkins doesn't shy away from the no-there-there places where we store our loved ones. Hospital corridors have seldom seemed so lifeless. And Jenkins will sometimes goose the lifelessness with a subtly savage wit. At first I didn't notice the poster on the wall of the Valley View nursing home, a sickly sweet sunset with the inspirational message "Each Day Is a New Beginning."
No it isn't, not for Daddy Dearest, anyway. As a guy who'd be better off dead, Bosco gives an uncompromisingly mean-spirited performance, and my hat's off to him. Hoffman and Linney don't compromise either, refusing to endear themselves to us. Linney has the showier role, a woman who can't help but act out her emotions. Hoffman has to play a guy who buries things deep inside, and he's just barely there until he suddenly erupts like a long-dormant volcano. Movies rarely take on the relationship between a brother and a sister, so it comes as a mild shock when Linney says to Hoffman "You're an idiot!" and he doesn't so much as flinch. They know each other so well they're able to treat each other like shit. But maybe it's finally time to grow up, bury the hatchet along with the guy who taught them how to use it.