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Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley review archive

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Hullabaloo


Saturday, January 05, 2008

 
Saturday Night At The Movies

Of bedpans and Brecht

By Dennis Hartley

Jesus, this little weekly post is starting to look like the Philip Seymour Hoffman fan boy page as of late. It’s not by design; it’s just that I can’t seem to swing a half-eaten tub of stale popcorn around the auditorium lately without hitting yet another screen image of the man who is rapidly morphing into the Charles Laughton of his generation (discuss).

And yes, Hoffman delivers a superb performance in “The Savages”, the latest offering from writer-director Tamara Jenkins (“Slums of Beverly Hills”). In a bit of inspired casting, Jenkins has paired Hoffman up with one of the finest character actresses around, Laura Linney. Hoffman and Linney are Jon and Wendy Savage, middle-aged siblings who find themselves saddled with the responsibility of caring for their estranged father, who has been diagnosed with dementia. When his “girlfriend” of twenty years dies, the elder Savage, Lenny (beautifully played by veteran stage actor Philip Bosco) is kicked to the curb by her adult children, who now legally own the house that the couple shared.

Neither Savage sibling is well-equipped to take care of this sudden and unwelcome burden. Each is suffering through their own mid-life crisis, and lead somewhat self-absorbed lives. Wendy is an aspiring playwright, supporting herself by working temp jobs as the writer’s grant rejection letters pile up. She lives alone in a modest NYC apartment (with the requisite cat) and gobbles down anti-depressants while slogging her way through a half-hearted affair with a married neighbor. Jon is a drama professor at an upstate college, spending his spare time doing obsessive research for a book on “the dark comedy” of Bertolt Brecht (in one particularly wonderful scene, he grooves to Kurt Weill while cruising in his car, high on Percocet). His love life is also in disarray; his live-in girlfriend of several years is heading back to her native Poland because her visa has expired (along with any hopes of a marriage proposal from the commitment-shy Jon).

Necessity sparks an uneasy family reunion as Jon and Wendy scramble to find a nursing home for Lenny, whose moments of lucidity are marked by the demeaning verbal abuse that obviously drove the siblings apart from their father in the first place (and explains the self-esteem issues that pervade their adult life). It doesn’t take long for long-dormant rivalries and simmering resentments between the brother and sister to re-emerge as well.

This is one of those family angst dramas that could have easily turned into a wrist-slitting downer in the Eugene O’Neill/Harold Pinter vein. After all, it does deal with some heavy issues; existential middle age despair and the looming prospect of the inevitable downward spiral of our parents’ “golden years” does not exactly make for light holiday season fare. However, writer-director Jenkins strikes a nice balance here; while her script doesn’t sugar-coat the film’s central theme (i.e., we’re all gonna die) with maudlin sentimentality, she still provides just the right amount of levity and very real, life-affirming moments to make this an engaging watch. It doesn’t hurt to have the monster talents of Hoffman and Linney on board. I know this is a dreaded cliché, but they made me laugh, and they made me cry. I’d rate this one three and a half Percocets. Enjoy.

You old poop: “I Never Sang for My Father” (1970), “Subject Was Roses”, “On Golden Pond”, “Rocket Gibraltar”, “The Notebook ”, “Narayama Bushiko - Ballad of Narayama”, “Right of Way”,“Kotch”, “Grey Gardens”, “Ikiru ”, “Away from Her”, “Last Orders”, “Death Of A Salesman” (1951), “Long Day's Journey Into Night” (1962), “The Dresser”, “Venus”, “Harold and Maude”, “Where's Poppa?”, “Cocoon”, “The Sunshine Boys”, “Going in Style”, “Things Change”, “Atlantic City”, “Tough Guys”, “Ride the High Country”, “The Grey Fox”, “Wild Strawberries”, “Harry and Tonto”, “Everybody's Fine”, “The Straight Story”, “Little Miss Sunshine”, “The Trip to Bountiful”, “Driving Miss Daisy”, “The Whales of August”, “Dreamchild”.



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