As more and more Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers deal with their Greatest Generation parents becoming old and infirm and moving into assisted living facilities — a process that generally involves guilt, headaches, and the summoning of long-buried family demons — they’ll probably get some respite knowing that they’re probably handling the whole thing better than the lead characters in “The Savages,” a brilliant new black comedy.
While writer-director Tamara Jenkins (“Slums of Beverly Hills”) lets things get a little mushy towards the end, the film brilliantly portrays a difficult family moment made even more complicated by her characters’ overweening narcissism.
Crusty old Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) lives in Arizona with his second wife — Jenkins and cinematographer W. Mott Hupfel III shoot Sun City like a candy-colored suburban fantasia out of David Byrne’s “True Stories” — but he starts showing Alzheimer’s symptoms right around the time she dies. So it’s up to his long-estranged children to sweep in and take care of him. Son Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has a Ph.D. in theatre — “Broadway?” asks Lenny — while daughter Wendy (Laura Linney) works as a temp, taking advantage of the computers and the office supplies to send her plays off to various foundations in the hopes of getting a grant.
Since both Savage children live in New York state, the decision is made to transfer Lenny to a facility in Buffalo, and Wendy temporarily moves in with Jon during the period of adjustment. In one darkly funny sequence, Wendy feels the hospital isn’t nice enough and tries to get Lenny to fake lucidity in an interview with a more attractively landscaped place. Jon explodes at her, calling her on the fact that her desire for an upgrade stems from her own guilt, and that no matter how nice these places are on the outside, they’re basically just death factories. (He then apologizes to the resident who happens by on her morning constitutional in a perfectly timed punch line.)
Dealing with dad allows the sibs to table their own catastrophes — not only is Wendy professionally frustrated (she lies to Jon about getting a Rockefeller grant), but she’s also involved with a married man in a go-nowhere affair. Jon, meanwhile, pretends not to mind the fact that his Polish girlfriend is being deported. “Your brother won’t marry me,” the woman tells Wendy. “But when I cook him eggs, he cries.” And indeed, he does.
Director Jenkins is a master of the awkward moment, from Jon and Wendy’s premature grazing at the snack table at a support group to the nursing-home screening of “The Jazz Singer,” which is a hit with Lenny but more than a bit awkward for the facility’s many African-American residents. The look on Hoffman and Linney’s faces when they realize they’re showing a movie that involves blackface is exquisitely squirmy.
In fact, both Hoffman and Linney are spot-on throughout, as is Bosco, reminding us yet again that even in vehicles that don’t deserve them (say, “Patch Adams” and “The Nanny Diaries,” respectively), they always nail the character they’re portraying.
It’s kind of a bummer, then, that Jenkins cops out a bit at the end, tying up things a little too neatly for characters who have been so wonderfully ragged around the edges. But thankfully, the climax isn’t so awful that it wipes out all of the film’s wonderfully snappy, snippy, spiky dialogue and relationships.