Dir: Tamara Jenkins
Scr: Tamara Jenkins
Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Bosco
The Savages arrives in theaters as one of the most well-received films of the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and a potential Oscar contender for its performances and writer/director. The Sundance tag is more of a warning sign than a stamp of approval to me these days, so I approached the film with some caution. In fact, I’m not sure exactly why Tara and I decided to see it last week, but perhaps it was some sort of compromise because I refused to see The Golden Compass. In any case, I was surprised to find that the film is actually filled with some decent ideas and thoughtful execution. And not surprisingly, it’s filled with two fantastic central performances.
Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman have both done better work but they are given well-developed characters and they make the most of them here, easily becoming the best thing about the film in the process. Hoffman in particular seems incapable of being disingenuious and he deserves any and all accolades being thrown at him. Linney has some off moments but overall comes across much more real and human than she ever does in actual interviews as herself. The only other performance of note is Philip Bosco as their ailing father and he does beffudled well enough. He mostly mozies through the film with a vacant look in his eye and jibberish on his tongue but in the two or three scenes where he’s required to add some weight, he goes way too over the top and spoils it. Shamefully and predictably however, he is the one receiving the bulk of the awards attention.
I haven’t seen writer/director Tamara Jenkins’ previous effort Slums of Beverly Hills, so I can’t speak to her body of work or maturation as a filmmaking. I can say that there’s a lot of restraint in the script that I was pleasantly surprised with. Dealing with dementia and death and sibling rivalry and many other topics that can so easily become heavy-handed, she mostly holds back and lets the events unfold with little fanfare. Her direction also shows a nice attention to tone and color while the lighting and composition of cinematographer W. Mott Hupfel III compliment the themes nicely. The score by Stephen Trask, however, is awful and completely detramental to the effectiveness of the film. Used way too often and way too prominently, his gentle piano comes across as a poor man’s version of Jon Brion’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind score and served only to italicize the action on screen rather than underline it.
Back to Jenkins though and her semi-autobiographical script. While the main ideas of the film are dealt with restraint, the details are often way too forced and/or clunky. For example, a terrible scene with a Nigerian orderly has him describe to Laura Linney how a patients toes will curl under a few days before he/she dies like “The Wizard of Oz”. Sure enough, a few scenes later we get a nice slow pan from Bosco’s face to his toes, at the end of which they curl under his blanket in such a dramatic fashion you couldn’t miss it from three theaters away. It’s as if on set, Jenkins did take after take commanding “more curling! more curling!” after each one and printed the final attempt. And while on the topic, the Nigerian orderly is the epitome of a screenwriting device, showing up for a scene or two merely to show Linney’s character exactly what she’s missing from her dead-end relationship with a married man. Not a complete idiot, Jenkins throws a quick curveball at the end of that scene as if to say, “See, I’m not going where you think I’m going!” Only she already has.
Most offensive is the writing and performance of Hoffman’s girlfriend, a Polish immigrant. Showing up for exactly one scene, she is like a cross between Rob Schneider in an Adam Sandler film and Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer from “Saturday Night Live”. How this ever managed to make it to the screen I’ll never know but it was extremely distracting. It also goes without saying that the “6 Months Later” epilogue is completely unnecessary and damaging to the thoughtful aftertaste the film had a chance at leaving. But thankfully these are relatively small mistakes and the potential for both this film and future films made by Jenkins to be great are real. Like the father character, she just seems subject to lapses of common sense and a bad case of inconsistensy.