There’s such a thing as too much. That in itself is a theme of Tamara Jenkins’s The Savages, about siblings Wendy (Laura Linney) and Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) taking responsibility for their ailing, alienated father when his living arrangements fall through. Both siblings are cash-strapped liberal arts majors carrying the memories of a vaguely abusive childhood, and while Jon at least has a steady professorship, his days are spent gloomily laboring over a book on the dark humor of Bertolt Brecht. Wendy at one point makes a heroically disastrous attempt to explain to their dementia-ridden father, Lenny (Philip Bosco), what Jon does for a living, trying to instill some pride in him for once, but finds that each clarifying point falls farther and farther from the mark. It’s a small moment that ends up being more powerful than many others, for the sole distinction of being an exchange between two characters in a private space. It’s all one needs to know how troubled their relationship is, in addition to being a plain snapshot of the pain felt watching a family member slowly die. Ostensibly, that is the “too much” that Jenkins seeks to explore, finding the onus of elder care placed on a grown brother and sister when they’re still trying to get over what their bastard of a father did to them. In a misplaced bid for dark humor and pathos, however, she ends up overplaying her hand dramatically, contriving scene after scene of public humiliation that sours the tone and spoils whatever hopeful grace note she saves for the end.
When it comes time to discuss end-of-life and burial plans with Lenny, Jon and Wendy decide a busy diner is the best place to drop the bomb. When it’s Lenny’s turn to pick for movie night at the retirement home, his choice features a wince-worthy instance of blackface. Even just to transport him to the retirement home, Jon and Wendy somehow find the only airline that seats special-needs passengers after everyone else — and then his pants fall down. In one way it demonstrates Lenny’s final abuse, forcing them to take ownership of his faults while exposing their wrecked coping skills to the judgment of annoyed, offended passersby. It goes a long way toward showing the devotion Jon and Wendy can muster to care for a man they hate. Piled on top of each other, though, it becomes a game of finding out how each social situation can go excruciatingly awry. It’s made worse by the anonymity of its supporting characters and even extras in a movie that takes place largely in retirement homes, hospitals, and airports, all places where emotions run high and spirits sink low. Are there any distinguishing characteristics to the members of the dementia support group Jon and Wendy visit? No. Just their collective stare at the pair’s awkward arrival.
Hoffman and Linney are old pros at faux pas and neurosis, and they weather everything that Jenkins throws at them with ruffled sympathy. She certainly nails the siblings’ detachedness, but without the wit or dryness to find the humor in any situation, and without the wherewithal to turn Lenny into anything other than a totem for his children’s dysfunction, she exploits his condition for emotional weight, creating discomfort for anyone who has gone through something similar. Hints are constantly made to Lenny’s past abuse, but by holding back on the details, Jon and Wendy’s issues come across as self-induced. It isn’t helped by Wendy’s pretended bashfulness about the contents of her latest play. She tells anyone who listens that she’s afraid it’s filled with “middle-class whining,” Given all that the movie has shown, we fear as much, and when it comes time to show a short snippet of it, it confirms the worst. If Lenny’s parenthood was as bad as his children remember it to be, Jenkins makes the bizarre decision to pull punches on the topic of abuse, and instead stomp on the foot of anyone, abused or not, who has gone through the grieving process.