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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

DVD Review: The Savages -- More Flight Than Bite

Review by Noah Mallin

Tamara Jenkins made the charming Slums of Beverly Hills ten years ago – a film that kind of sank without a trace despite some fine performances that include one of Marisa Tomei’s best turns and a typically solid Alan Arkin. Cut to last year and her long awaited follow-up film, the considerably more noticed The Savages. Like Slums, The Savages has an ace cast – could you do any better than Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as siblings? Both films also have strong autobiographical elements so it’s tempting to see the aging father Lenny in The Savages as Arkin’s character in his twilight years, just as the brother and sister duo in her first film have grown to internalize the nomadic dislocations of their childhood.

There is a tonal difference between the two films that is appropriate to the time that’s passed for both the characters and the director. While the travails of a teenage girl in the 70s growing up in a dysfunctional family run by a big-talking loser is played for sweetness, pathos, laughs and a tinge of nostalgia in Slums, the story of two emotionally stunted siblings in the present day dealing with the dilemma of what to do when they have to take care of their rapidly declining father who didn’t take care of them as children is melancholic if sometimes bitterly funny.

The sibling's names - John and Wendy - have a fitting Peter Pan feel and in each of their own ways they live in a neverland of stunted emotions and lives. Though this lacks the acuity of a film like Linney-starrer You Can Count on Me which tackled similar brother-sister issues, the real dilemma of what to do about a parent who not only can't take care of themselves but who weren't there for their kids way back when cuts deep.

It's a sometimes touching film that finds most of it's pleasures in the interplay between the two stars. What undermines it a bit is the episodic nature of the story and an ending that comes off as a bit too pat and unearned. Yet we do come to feel for these two screwed up adults, and laugh with and at them. The Savages is a less than perfect film but like the nursing home they settle on for dear old Dad it has it's own comforts -- if just the enjoyment of seeing Linney goof on Hoffman's ridiculous neckbrace or Hoffman's icy response to Linney's married boyfriend.

So, not a classic and it is a bit of a downer but it's also nice to see an American film that savors the small bits of real life rather than explosions and jump cuts.

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