Monday, June 09, 2008

Monday Movie Review: The Savages

The Savages (2007) 8/10
John Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his sister Wendy (Laura Linney) are faced with placing their estranged father (Philip Bosco) in a nursing home.

You might have to talk yourself into seeing this one, because the description sounds relentlessly sad. The previews tried to overcome this by showing funny lines and painting it as a family comedy. But The Savages is neither relentlessly sad nor a family comedy. Instead it is a human story about flawed, struggling people with a surprising naturalism to their relationships. For several days after seeing it, I felt John and Wendy as if I knew them. Over a course of days, I gained understanding about their flaws and their behaviors, just as I do with people I know, when I mull over the things they do and say.

Particularly striking is the way that John and Wendy interact like siblings; a little dependent, a little defensive, a little loving, and very, very familiar.

More... It is impossible to discuss The Savages without comparing it to You Can Count On Me. Both are movies about the relationship between a brother and sister (both times played by Linney) who have not really grown up. In You Can Count on Me, the Prescott siblings are arrested at the emotional age they were when their parents were killed in a car crash; in The Savages, it's when they were abandoned by their mother (who went out to dinner and never came back). In both, Linney's character is acting out her childish neediness by having an affair with a married man. And, too, both are very good movies.

John and Wendy's names are obviously a reference to Peter Pan, but instead of feeling hammered with the "won't grow up" theme, I thought about the odd, disconnected parents who thought that was a clever thing to name their kids. The reference is never explictly mentioned on-screen (thank God!). Even the names end up with an additional subtlety, as I noticed that "savage" is something like the opposite of "darling."

The Savages, as a family, are not clichéd, and sometimes that feels surprising. John is a failure at relationships; he is allowing his long-time girlfriend to return to Poland rather than marry her. He is defensive about his weight, and his house is a mess. Yet he is steady, and thoughtful, and comforting, and Wendy knows she can count on him. Wendy is the flighty, irresponsible one, yet she, too, has a lot more to her than is readily apparent. They are not their character sketches; they are people.

And that's what I keep coming back to. I could tell you more about the story and the characters, but what I keep coming back to is the people-ness of John and Wendy, and how I felt like I'd spent time with smart, sad, interesting people who I was glad to get to know.

(Third cross-post on the right and straight on 'til morning.)