When you set out to write something that matters to you, it always seems that the first thing to go is the idea of telling a story that no one has told before. I’m not saying that every detail of every story is the same (they’re like snowflakes in that way), but the basic plots still seem to repeat themselves over and over. I’ve set a goal over the next couple of years to write a novel, but the actual act of doing the writing isn’t what scares me; it’s coming up with a plot that’s smart and relevant and hasn’t been trod a thousand times before.
The Savages has that plot. And if nothing else, Tamara Jenkins, the writer/director of the film, should be immensely proud of that fact. No one before Jenkins has made the film that seems so obvious given the number of people going through it each day: the endless war of attrition that is dealing with a sick, aging parent in America.
The Savages stars Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Wendy and Jon Savage, brother and sister. They’re both enamored of theater; she’s an aspiring playwright, while he’s a Buffalo academic writing a book on Bertolt Brecht. This aspect could have been badly handled from the start, but Jenkins wisely chooses to avoid the concept of theatrics in relation to the siblings’ actual crisis. That would be the dementia of their elderly father (Philip Bosco); when his longtime girlfriend dies and her family evicts them from the house, the siblings Savage are forced to deal with finding care for their father, from whom they’ve long been estranged (it’s implied that he abused them).
The estrangement thing is another cleverly avoided pitfall that could not be executed more simply: Bosco is just too far gone mentally to have a series of histrionic “You never loved me” scenes, and the childhood experience is dealt with quietly and sadly. Instead of being a constant source of tension because of his past, Bosco is really something of a shell, his self only surfacing from time to time, and not in the ways the siblings want. And so the story becomes much richer; Jon and Wendy have to take care not of the father they’ve steeled themselves against, but of a lost, dissolute version. And that makes their emotions about the situation infinitely more complicated. While Hoffman shuts down, placing Bosco in a comparatively modest facility, Linney, racked with guilt, tries to get him into a more elite nursing home. The interview goes disastrously; it has shades of overanxious parents trying to get their kid into a right kindergarten, and when it’s over, Hoffman blows up. I couldn’t find a clip, but here’s his speech:
Dad’s not the one that has a problem with the Valley View. There’s nothing wrong with Dad’s situation. Dad’s situation is fine. He’s never gonna adjust to it if we keep yanking him outta there. And, actually, this upward mobility fixation of yours, it’s counterproductive and, frankly, pretty selfish. Because it’s not about Dad, it’s about you and your guilt. That’s what these places prey upon.
I happen to think it’s nicer here.
Of course you do, because you are the consumer they want to target. You are the guilty demographic. The landscaping, the neighborhoods of care; they’re not for the residents, they’re for the relatives. People like you and me who don’t want to admit to what’s really going on here.
Which is what, Jon?
People are dying, Wendy! Right inside that beautiful building right now, it’s a fucking horror show! And all this wellness propaganda and the landscaping, it’s just there to obscure the miserable fact that people die! And death is gaseous and gruesome and it’s filled with shit and piss and rotten stink!
In one of the movie’s funniest moments, Hoffman abruptly cuts off this speech when he sees an orderly gently rolling an elderly woman in a wheelchair out for a walk.
And I think that’s what really elevates The Savages from other dealing-with-parental-problems stories: it’s deeply, darkly funny. Every time the grimness of the situation gets too out of control, Jenkins throws in a lovely counterpoint of wit. Another great example is a scene where the siblings try to help their father regain his memory by screening old movies he liked at the nursing home. The film turns out to feature a scene with blackface, offending everyone in the room; the good deed is decidedly punished.
Much was made in reviews of the film that the Savage siblings are abject failures. While they do have some obvious personal problems (they are not professionally or romantically successful, and Wendy seems to have a mild tendency towards compulsive lying), I think the “F word” seems to be a little harsh. They are conflicted people, aiming to do their best, and while failure is a part of that, they’re still bright and concerned. I don’t necessarily think that their failure is even supposed to be the heart of the film.
The failure that really concerns The Savages, and the one that I think will make the film an enduring one, is the American medical system’s need to keep the elderly alive at any cost. It’s an issue the Savage family has to face as their father approaches the end of his life, and the film is boldfaced about the inhumanity of growing old in America, the way that personal and religious guilt make the end of life a place of infinitely more suffering than it needs to be.
Towards the end of the film, Linney’s married lover has come to tell her that he is going to put down his beloved old dog; her hip problems have been painful for her, and if she gets the needed surgery, the recuperation will be long and arduous. At scene’s end, Linney asks him if he can do her a favor, and in the film’s final shot, we see her running by the river, encouraging the old dog to follow as her back legs are pinned to wheels.
This image has not left my mind since I saw the film, and as we face a generation of baby boomers who will age in ever-more-taxing ways, I wonder how often I’ll keep thinking of the dog on wheels.