“That was so depressing.” “What a depressing movie!” The comments of the mostly late-middle-aged patrons exiting the theatre in West Newton were uniformly negative. My sister’s were no different. Still in her seat as the credits for “The Savages” began to roll, she had blurted out, “I didn’t like that! It reminded me too much of everything we went through with Mom.” Like Lenny Savage, the aging father movingly played by Philip Bosco, our mother had spent sad and difficult weeks in a nursing home before she died, almost exactly ten years past. Like him, she showed signs of dementia and had forced us to make unpleasant decisions “on her behalf” just as do siblings Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy (Laura Linney) in the film. Even the film setting—the nursing home is in Buffalo, New York—evoked uneasy nostalgia and mixed memories of family life; my sister and I had grown up a few miles away in Niagara Falls.
But why didn’t I have the same depressed reaction to the film? Why was I left with a feeling of consolation and even hopefulness? I’ve been puzzling that out ever since. To be sure, the film (written and directed by Tamara Jenkins) didn’t fulfill my expectations, raised by the previews, of a madcap black comedy about a hilariously dysfunctional family of “savages.” It was sadder and more realistic than we had been led to anticipate. Actually, the scenes featured in the trailer, where angry family members hurl recriminations at each other, turned out for me to be the least convincing of the film. The constant sibling rivalry and antagonism that had sounded so wickedly funny ahead of time too often went over the top. At one point I found myself identifying with Lenny as he sat sadly in the car while they, outside, yelled furiously at each other and forgot him; along with Lenny I felt grateful to have the noise of their accusations muted by the window glass, glass that cut him off from the outside world, an invisible barrier that was also a symbol of his implacably deepening isolation.
Of course it was only natural that Wendy and Jon would show their neurotic sides and have contradictory ideas about what to do when faced with their long-estranged, once abusive father’s sudden dependence—his longtime girlfriend’s death leaves him abruptly homeless, his worsening dementia can no longer be ignored. They are annoyed with the new demands on their time and simultaneously feel burdened with guilt at having “neglected” their father for so long, even though he had apparently been terrible to them (especially his son) when they were young. Both siblings are in denial, first about their father’s condition, but more fundamentally about their own problems: Jon is a college professor who cannot finish his manuscript on Brecht or commit to his Polish girlfriend, Wendy a playwright manquée in a dead-end relationship with a sweet but very married man and his dog. Both siblings, of course, claim to be clear-sighted about the problems of the other.
As they struggle to take responsibility we see them unthinkingly imposing their own values on the hapless Lenny. Wendy, invested in “keeping up appearances,” is embarrassed by her father’s gaudy suspenders and impatiently removes them while he is in his wheelchair as they prepare to fly to Buffalo from the southwest. Midflight, Lenny shouts, “Bathroom!” and plows down the aisle toward the restroom followed by his flustered daughter. Inevitably, his trousers fall to the floor revealing his diaper for all to see. Though we have anticipated such a disaster, it is still a horrifying moment, and we feel for Wendy despite her foolishness.
Such tragi-comical scenes call forth the complex emotions that made the film work for me. The helpers often seem as helpless as the demented father, and their arguing only underscores this. But the hectic, superficial squabbling floats above the film’s more fundamentally gentle humor, its sympathy with imperfect persons trying to cope with a terrible situation. The fact that many of us have faced or will face similar anguish may increase our discomfort with the film, but also our ability to identify with these characters. Being invited to see the comical aspects of their suffering we gain distance, a perspective that makes such pain more bearable as a part of human experience.
After their father’s death sister and brother part ways again, but with a greater measure of mutual understanding and appreciation. Jon heads off to a conference in Poland, and Wendy will write her play, now finally sure of her subject: Jon’s painful childhood. She’s broken up with her married lover, but saves his crippled dog from being euthanized. In the final scene we see her jogging bravely along—followed by the dog in an unlikely but effective rolling brace—into the sunset. Or is it a sunrise? To that, my sister and I would probably have different answers.
On reflection, I think the real question about this movie is why its marketers decided to peddle it as a screwball comedy. Perhaps they feared that U.S. movie-goers would not be drawn to a serious film, written and directed by a little-known woman, about an all-too typical family facing the decline and death of its oldest member. Their choice seems to confirm the stereotype of the superficial American entertainment-seeker. And in fact, the movie’s opening weekend gross was three times that of another beautiful, moving film on the topic of Alzheimer’s, also by a relatively unknown woman screenwriter and director: Canadian Sarah Polley’s début feature film “Away From Her,” based on Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” and starring Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent and Olympia Dukakis. But both of these “women’s” films have subsequently earned many awards and demonstrate that, in the right hands, the wrenching experience of mental and physical decline is a valid and rewarding topic for art in our time.
Note for German audiences: “The Savages” is playing in German as “Die Geschwister Savage;” “Away From Her” as “An ihrer Seite.”
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