Two 40ish siblings, Wendy and Jon (Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman), are forced to act their age after their somewhat estranged father Lenny (Philip Bosco) loses his mind to dementia and his girlfriend Doris (Rosemary Murphy) to old age. Before Doris died mid-manicure, Lenny’d taken to smearing his feces on the wall as vengeance against her live-in nurse’s insistence that he keep the toilet flushed. Lenny’s never been warm; now that he’s helpless and half-lost his mind, he’s even more irascible. As wannabe playwright and office temp Wendy considers herself too immature for any responsibility greater than a housecat and her theater professor brother Jon so fears responsibility and commitment, he can’t even bring himself to marry his gorgeous longtime Polish girlfriend to keep her in America, Lenny’s certainly not living with them. But while Jon can accept that he’s just that sort of callow overgrown kid who throws daddy in a nursing home, Wendy’s guilt about uprooting him from Doris’ desert home to a cheap facility in Buffalo collides with her inability to man up and shoulder the burden.
The Savages traffics in moments of recognition—it’s like watching your worst relatives fight at the dinner table. Both Wendy and Jon have clipped their own wings in order to keep themselves from failure and embarrassment. Underneath the decidedly average adulthoods that seemed to have crept up on them when they weren’t looking, both feel the pressure of all the successes they should have earned. Writer-director Tamara Jenkins needling details ring true, the way Wendy channels her anxiety into making sure Lenny has the best pillow in the hospital, or how the two listen in on each other’s conversations at night. It helps that Linney and Hoffman have those lived-in faces and bodies that can make their smallest sighs feel more human than human. But there’s something about this exercise in capturing human frailty that feels both slack and cold, like we’ve spent two hours lying on the bathroom tile staring in a mirror. And as the goal is mimicry, Jenkins sacrifices her own artistic license to shape this real-life reflection until its themes can reveal a deeper truth, making her forcedly optimistic ending strike the film’s only false note. Oddly, watching Wendy and Jon wrestle—credibly—with their father’s mortality didn’t press me to examine my own thoughts about aging and death. And isn’t that really what art is for? If we wanted to know what a meadow looks like, we could just go out and snap a picture. But if we wanted to feel the sunshine, we need Monet to dapple and distort the light. The artist’s hand pushes us to bring ourselves to their distinct vision of the world—we need interaction and provocation. And Jenkins’ brushstrokes of her characters are just too exacting to move us more than a lifelike painting of a basket of fruit. We can be awed at the techniques, but walk away empty.