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The Savage Innocents

The lighter side of senility meets the dark side of family life in Tamara Jenkins' hilarious The Savages.

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Let's talk about actors. Specifically, let's talk about one of America's finest players, Philip Seymour Hoffman, star of The Savages. The Fairport, New York native broke into films as a wise-cracking student/slacker type in the mid-'90s in such feature films as Scent of a Woman, My Boyfriend's Back, Nobody's Fool, and Twister.

From there, he made the leap into a meaty supporting role as Scotty the cameraman in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights. His heartbreakingly awkward scene with Mark Wahlberg's Dirk Diggler, in which Scotty confesses his love for the porno star, instantly categorized Hoffman as an all-purpose portrayer of articulate, offbeat characters — gay loner, drug addict, chronic masturbator, quirky best friend, etc. After showing up in The Big Lebowski, Todd Solondz' Happiness, and Anderson's disastrous parable Magnolia, Hoffman struck pay dirt in Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley, in a part that remains one of his best. Within the high-wattage ensemble of Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, and Cate Blanchett, Hoffman's role as the skeptical preppy Freddie Miles, school chum of Law's giddy rich kid Dickie Greenleaf, brought a splash of buttoned-down Ivy League reality to Patricia Highsmith's trust-funders-on-permanent-vacation psychological thriller. Freddie wasn't suckered for a minute by Tom Ripley's game — if he had lived he would have made a wonderful Wall Street lawyer.

Fast-forward to Capote in 2005. By that time even the Academy had caught on to Hoffman's skill with characters. He won the Oscar, even though he had done better work in other films. Hoffman's usual incisive tone of voice, the well-bred-gone-to-seed hauteur that could convey equal parts bluff intimidation and moral cowardice, seemed buried in Truman Capote's over-the-top mannerisms. It's hard to say who was really getting that Academy Award — Hoffman or the ghost of In Cold Blood.

Hoffman's price undoubtedly went up. This year he cashed in some pretty big chips with typically smart-talking roles in Sidney Lumet's underappreciated Before the Devil Knows You're Dead — as your basic freebasing, cuckolded, murdering executive — and in a wowie supporting stint, complete with black hair and a mustache, in Mike Nichols' Charlie Wilson's War, as a hilarious Greek-American CIA agent named Gust Avrakotos. The forty-year-old Hoffman's best work in 2007, however, is the part of Jon Savage in The Savages.

Hoffman shares the spotlight in writer-director Tamara Jenkins' sublime family character study with another red-hot actor, Laura Linney. That 43-year-old New York City native was nominated for two Oscars — You Can Count on Me in 2001 (Actress) and Kinsey in 2005 (Supporting) — but for many movie fans, Linney reached her full potential as the harried novelist/failed parent/combative wife Joan Berkman in Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale. No one who ever saw that bitter, ingrown family drama can forget Joan's prickly exchanges with her husband/nemesis, Bernard (Jeff Daniels). Linney plays a variation on Joan Berkman, with touches of vulnerability and neediness crossed with fierce anger, in the part of Wendy Savage, Jon's sister. It may be her best role yet.

Writer-director Tamara Jenkins' fifth feature (she made the delightful Slums of Beverly Hills with Natasha Lyonne and Alan Arkin) takes the shape of a sobering sitcom — an estranged brother (Hoffman) and sister (Linney) are forced to deal with caring for their equally emotionally distanced father, Lenny (Philip Bosco, in deep character), when Lenny's girlfriend dies. We could say that The Savages is a social-problem drama about senile dementia and nursing homes, but that's a little like saying The 400 Blows is about school truancy.

Jenkins starts the ball with appropriately whimsical shots of Sun City, Arizona, the "planned retirement community" where Lenny has been living, but there's trouble in paradise. His senior-citizen girlfriend drops dead at the beauty shop, and Lenny acts up by smearing his shit on the bathroom walls. Jon and Wendy are summoned from the other side of the country, Lenny gets the Arizona heave-ho from his "in-laws," and it's back to snowy New York State for the cantankerous old geezer. Bosco plays Lenny in alternating shades of rancor and resignation, loudly cursing the patriarch character in a nursing home screening of The Jazz Singer one moment, and sighing at his children the next. There are, as they say, relationship issues among these Savages.

Jon and Wendy. It's no coincidence that these bickering siblings have the same names of the brother and sister in Peter Pan — they both inhabit the outskirts of Neverland. Wendy toils as an unproduced freelance playwright, forever reshaping her unhappy childhood into howlingly symbolic scenarios and lying to her brother (if not herself) about Guggenheim grants. Like her father, Wendy is a bundle of long-festering resentments. Her few solaces include old movies (she loves Margo Channing from All About Eve) and the sexual attention she gets from a neighbor in her New York City building, a wandering husband named Larry (Peter Friedman, pitch-perfect). Jon makes a living as a university drama professor in Buffalo, where he tends to his perpetually forthcoming book, a study of Bertolt Brecht, and where, during the film's running time, he breaks up and makes up with his Polish immigrant girlfriend. Both have that desperate look, the demeanor of imminent, unwanted solitude. The whole family is pharma-happy, gobbling pills constantly — Percocet, Xanax, Zocor.

With a setup like that, Jenkins either has a triple suicide or a comedy on her hands. For better or worse, The Savages somehow manages to strike a happy medium. Wendy is a coper, and so's her brother — witness the "red pillow" incident and her promising interlude with Howard, the nursing home attendant. In the end, Wendy lays it out straight: "We're doing the right thing. We're taking better care of the old man than he ever did for us." Happy holidays.

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