One of several sneak previews not officially listed in the program, The Savages is, above all, a showcase for Philip Seymour Hoffman, a man who proves again and again that he’s one of cinema’s most colossal talents. Few are as instinctively aware of an actor’s need to remain loose and low to the ground, and here, his scruffy demeanor never betrays an ounce of falsehood. He mumbles, scratches, spits, and, when called upon, tears off just enough of the scenery to give himself additional heft. Not only has he never overacted, he’s never appeared to act at all, inhabiting characters so fully as to be our generation’s Brando. You can damn the film or ever the lines he’s called upon to deliver, but he’s never failed to speak them with clarity and conviction. Here, as Jon, Hoffman is as good as ever, and his expected brilliance is enough — though barely, I’m afraid — to bring the movie above the passable. As a brother, a lover, and, most importantly, a son, he does more than roll off the clichés of a loveable loser; he’s an island of truth even if he’s not willing to live according to his judgments. He’s matched by Laura Linney as his sister Wendy, a rudderless mess of a thing who sleeps with a married neighbor, uses questionable grant money to keep alive a flagging career as a writer, and can’t face the reality of putting her father in a nursing home. And while the prospect of watching yet another movie about kids and their aging parents didn’t seem to be the order of the day, the film was rescued by its refusal to provide pat answers to life’s unavoidable dilemmas.
While similar in theme to the more dramatic I Never Sang for My Father, it lacks that film’s unrelenting grimness, if only because it insists that there are in fact laughs to be found at the end of days. Sure, I’m as likely to snicker at advanced dementia as the next person (especially when I hear on the news that one of them has wandered off half-naked), but I simply couldn’t relate to the crisis of conscience this film portrayed. That’s not a flaw in the movie, of course, but just once I’d like to see two siblings greedily rub their hands together, drop dad in a den of madness, and count the days until the bag of bones expired, thereby releasing his remaining fortune. But a film is about what it is about, not what we wish it to be, and overall, there’s little to criticize, even if my reaction is somewhat tepid. Well-played, well-executed, and delightfully free of clutter, The Savages is one of the better films of this type, even if it could have tempered the proceedings with the darker hues it seemed to deserve. Perhaps it was simply a coincidence, but perhaps that black road was reached after all, as dear old dad breathed his last in Buffalo, New York, one of the few places on earth actually worse than a urine-soaked death house. Maybe here, maybe now, both Jon and Wendy will finally realize that only upon the death of one’s parents does true adulthood actually begin. Here, we can believe the springboard, even if they’ll fight it with everything they’ve got.