Review: The Savages

"The Savages" (IMDb listing) is a refreshingly real motion picture, portraying life as a desolate, self-inflicted nightmare that offers few moments of peace. It's a rusty film from Tamara Jenkins, the bright filmmaker who was last seen with 1998's delightful "Slums of Beverly Hills." The near ten-year absence from the big screen has provided mammoth inspiration, but a loss of directorial vision.

Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his sister Wendy (Laura Linney) are two stunted intellectuals leading messy lives overflowing with bad decisions. When their elderly father (Philip Bosco) isn't able to take care of himself, the siblings fly from New York to Arizona to pick him up and take him east. Settling him in a nursing home, Jon and Wendy are suddenly confronted with the prospect of taking care of a man who barely took care of them, inflaming their insecurities to a point of a no return.

Jenkins has a wonderful eye and ear for the finer points of human misery. Her acute observation of Jon and Wendy's frustrations power most of "Savages," along with a curiosity for fall/winter weather blues, backdropping the movie in lovely, yet wholly oppressive ways. The film is a lengthy wrestling match with depressive attitudes and family bickering, and "Savages" will surely be passed over when the annual "Happiest Movies of the Year" awards are announced. It's a comedy of sorts, a drama of modest means…essentially an indescribable experience that plows through short bursts of laughs and aggravation, much like life itself.

Jenkins loves her characters, and she's willing to portray their unpleasant attributes to better process their motivations and reactions: a sharp directorial job in terms of sheer observation, but the lethargy of the piece of unmistakable. It's a character-driven film, yet Jenkins leaves perhaps too much unsaid, wallowing in despair instead of furthering the dimensions of the Savages, especially the father character. As much as it's a film of great nuance, "Savages" could've benefitted from a little more focus; serious pacing problems become a major speed bump in the film's final 45 minutes.

While the film wanders, it's held together by Hoffman and Linney, who barrel through their obstruction-rich characters of Jon and Wendy. The interplay here is amazing; the actors pulling off the shades of sibling rivalry without punching any melodramatic buttons. Their exchanges are short, direct, and crawling with contempt, yet they're bonded by a common cause and spend the running time figuring out how to communicate with each other. Hoffman and Linney dig into the roles with aplomb, delivering two especially itchy, wounded performances that end up saving the film, giving it purpose Jenkins has difficulty locating on her own.

"Slums of Beverly Hills" was a fresh, hilarious family saga that took dark turns bravely. "Savages" has the same integrity, but lacks the ideal clarity that best supports what is incredibly caustic material. It's a misfire for Jenkins, but an interesting failure.

Filmfodder Grade: C+