Dec 3, 2007

The Savages

I love Slums of Beverly Hills, Tamara Jenkins first movie. I think it is one of the most unfairly underrated American comedies, a brilliant little dark comedy of a very disfunctional family, led by Alan Arkin who plays a loser dad and his oddball kids who don't fit in. The comedy is bittersweet (more towards the bitter side) but there is genuine empathy in the family's spunky resilience and in the fact that as screwed up a father as Arkin is, he is trying to do the best by his kids. Everybody is a screamer, everybody has big dreams and big emotions and the cast is a goldmine: Alan Arkin, Natasha Lyonne, the great David Krumholz, Marisa Tomei in a hilarious, moving role as a very disturbed cousin, Rita Moreno and Carl Reiner.
I was expecting to equally love The Savages. But, as well written, smart and committed to show a very dark side of human existence, namely death and decay, it is a movie that holds you at arms' length. The characters do not allow you to get near them, let alone grow fond of them; in the end one feels a chill. I respect Jenkins' integrity and I respect her choice of subject matter. My hat's off to her for wanting to communicate to the American people that old age, illness and death cannot be sugarcoated. And I applaud the bravery in making this a comedy, as opposed to a tearjerker. But making a comedy about having to put your dad in a nursing home proves a very hard thing to do. I find it interesting that Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor are among the producers, for it is exactly what makes their satires winning that is absent in this film. Payne's comedies can be very cruel to their characters (think of any of them: Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt and Sideways, even that little jewel of a short in Paris Je T'aime), but there is always a strong current of empathy underlying the satire. You can find Reese Witherspoon's character in Election absolutely hateful, until you see her mom and you understand the strain that is to grow up like that, the horror that is to be like that, and you feel for her. You almost root for her. Nothing of the sort, alas, happens in The Savages. Perhaps it's the choice of characters: two neurotic, competitive playwright siblings; perhaps it's the choice of actors. One tries, but it is impossible to connect to or ultimately care about Laura Linney in particular, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the siblings who have to take care of a father that never took care of them. Linney is shrill and overacted and works very hard to be funny. And Hoffman is so pent up in his feelings, as good as he is, he can't be reached. These two adult kids are both so insufferable, not even their terrible plight helps in making us like them.
However, as their father, the great Phillip Bosco gives an astounding performance as a man in the throes of dementia. It must be very frightening for a mature actor to go to a place like that, and he gives a fearless, giant performance. The mix of rage, impotence, genuine beffudlement, cunning and sadness is the only truly moving thing in the movie. The rest is intermittently funny, certainly very sharply written and observed, very well directed. But the movie is more brittle and belabored than I wish it would be.

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