The Savages

I really liked The Savages, a movie written and directed by Tamara Jenkins. It’s one of the better movies I have seen in recent memory, and it would have been almost perfect had not the last 10 minutes of the movie shifted the tone of the movie so much. But more on that later.

The first thing that struck me about the movie is just how natural it seems, almost like a lived-in kind of feeling. It captures ordinary people and their lives very well, with equal amounts of humor, misery, and absurdity. When I first saw the trailer, I was afraid that Jenkins would make yet another absurdist black comedy movie about dysfunctional families.

Sure, the movie does make you laugh at uncomfortable places at things you are not supposed to, but it also realistically portray the lives of its characters, all of whom are minor and do not stand for some symbol or archetype. This is a movie about real people with real problems, most of them minor but consequential to the people involved, and it probes familial dysfunction in depth.

None of the characters are stock characters; instead, each has his/her own personality, mannerisms, and tics. And these characters are well portrayed by the actors involved. Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman (who seems incapable these days of turning in a bad acting job) are two of my favorite, semi-underrated character actors, and each does a great job of playing siblings who love, hate, annoy, and console each other. They have great chemistry on screen.

But what took me by surprise is Philip Bosco, who plays the patriarch of the titular family, Lenny Savage. The character is an abusive father who neglected his children for so long but is losing his mind to dementia. This is not supposed to be a sympathetic character, but Bosco nevertheless plays him in a way that gets the audience to care. He doesn’t try to win the audience’s sympathy, but neither does he ham up the abusive father stock type either. He does a good job balancing both the humane part of Lenny and his more abusive inside, infusing his character with the irritability, the misery, realization, and the regret of someone who’s about to die and realizes that he has been bad to his children but can’t quite say it.

In essence, The Savages is a small movie, but I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense. It is only small in that it’s a movie about small people dealing with the fact that old people die in loneliness in some forgotten nursing home. It deals with the fact that most children of dysfunctional families are in some way always affected by their childhood. That the movie does this without being so obvious is a great achievement, and it is one of the major reasons why I enjoy it so much. The movie doesn’t make any grand revelations about mortality, or sibling dynamics, or family–that is not its aim. Rather, it just portrays, in a realistic and understated way, how a family interacts and all the equal measures of humor, anger, humiliation, love, and sadness that all family life consists of.

This is not a movie to watch if you are looking for uplift, because you will get none. There is no epiphany, no life-changing lessons at the end: just regular people with ordinary, mediocre lives trying to get by.

That is, until the last 10 minutes. Had the movie ended right after Lenny’s death, it would have been nearly perfect, which, coming from me, is high praise, since I never say any movie is perfect out of principle. It was apparent from the beginning that only after Lenny has died can his children move on with their lives again. There is nothing wrong with this message, but what is wrong with how the last 10 minutes dealt with this claim is the tone: it becomes too triumphant.

Instead of taking the understated, realistic, and natural tone of what came before, the last 10 minutes turn into something like an epiphany or neatly-wrapped resolution that the movie has been wise to avoid. The sudden transformation of the siblings is just inconsistent with the rest of the movie because it’s too obvious, not subtle at all. Instead of acknowledging life’s complexities, the ending seems to pat the audience on the back and tells them that these characters’ lives turn out to be happy after all.

Of course, even this “happy” resolution is not as blatantly optimistically sappy as most Hollywood movies, but it’s enough of a change in tone that it feels jarring. I really don’t understand why Jenkins chose to go with this tone for the ending. It’s if at the end, she decided that maybe the audience just needs a little bit of uplift. But if this is the case, why subject the audience to the previous 90 minutes with a much different tone? Anyways, I just felt like the ending was a cop out. While it did not significantly compromise the integrity of the rest of the movie, it nonetheless deviates from it.

In reality, however, this is just my nit-picking, but nit-picking is what I am trained to do with my “useless” humanities education.

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