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We have seen it, smelled it, touched it—we all know it’s coming. But when the slow march of death presents itself, it’s somehow always a shock, something that seems too random, impossible, and cruel to be real. In our late 20s, it was likely a grandparent; now, the boiled cabbage and ammonia scent that emanated from the walls of their nursing home is something we carry forever. In our later 40s, it may be our own parents, their shuffle off the mortal coil unboxing a houseful of unresolved issues from our early lives. Sometime later, us.
It is all too horrifying to consider, which is why it always tends to surprise us when it finally comes. Except, actually, it isn’t—a fact made painfully and reassuringly clear by Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages, one of the most expertly made and beautifully realized comic dramas of the later aughts. This is a movie that finds comfort in telling the truth and never pulling punches: not only does the Parkinson’s-afflicted patriarch of the film write messages with his own feces, but he’s also a rank bastard whose idea of a good time is showing The Jazz Singer (the Al Jolson version) to his nursing home while the mostly African-American staff looks on. He’s a dying man with little left except two grown children that he never much loved or really even thought about. “Death is gaseous and gruesome and filled with piss and shit and rot and stink,” says Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Jon. Well, sure, but in Jenkins’ hands it is also filled with hope and honor and humor, all the stuff that makes life so beautiful and pain worth putting up with in the first place.
Jenkins—it feels like a crime against humanity that she has only written and directed one other film, 1998’s similarly wonderful The Slums of Beverly Hills—tells the story of Jon and Wendy Savage, played by Hoffman and Laura Linney, who was Oscar nominated along with the screenplay. He is an academic indifferently stumbling through a book on Bertolt Brecht in his drafty Buffalo home, willing to allow the deportation of the Polish woman he loves desperately because committing to a life with her is unfathomable. Wendy, meanwhile, is a NYC office temp desperate to win a grant for her “subversive, semi-autobiographic” play inspired by “the work of Jean Genet and the cartoons of Lynda Barry.” Her lover is married and she keeps him around for the easy sex and because she adores his aging Lab, Marley. They are forced to look past themselves and navigate the nursing industry when their father loses his partner and a chunk of his mind.
The Savages is a 1927 Yankees kind of film, where every element—the intimately framed cinematography, the precisely realized set design, the piano-based score—performs at its peak. This is especially true of the acting: for all his Capotes and his Masters, Hoffman was always most affecting when playing a character most like himself, while Linney has never been funnier, whether decking out her dad’s room with Urban Outfitters finery as if he were a college freshman or flirting with a tender Nigerian orderly. “You married?” he asks. “No,” she says, then a beat. “But my boyfriend is.” She helps give the film a lightness and bounce despite its dreary subject matter. In fact, there is a kind of joy to The Savages, one that stays below the surface until its powerfully uplifting ending. Don’t worry, it’s not one of those things where everyone learns to love each other and pretends that the iceberg their lives ran into isn’t real. This is something more profound, a movie about the power of duty and how simply facing reality, however unpleasant, is its own kind of transcendent act.