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Originally published December 25, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 26, 2007 at 6:11 PM

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Movie review

"Savages" a drama of poignancy and truth

It's no accident that the two main characters in Tamara Jenkins' startlingly vivid drama "The Savages" are named Jon and Wendy: Like the Darling children of long ago, they're visiting a sort of Never-Never Land.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

"The Savages," with Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Bosco. Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins. 113 minutes. Rated R for some sexuality and language. Harvard Exit, Lincoln Square.

It's no accident that the two main characters in Tamara Jenkins' startlingly vivid drama "The Savages" are named Jon and Wendy: Like the Darling children of long ago, they're visiting a sort of Never-Never Land. In this case, it's the land of old age — the flat ranch houses of Arizona, looking like stage sets in the bland sunshine; the dreary gray light of a bedroom in a moderately priced nursing home, with the red pillows and decorations brought in by a concerned daughter doing little to dispel the gloom.

Played (marvelously) by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, Jon and Wendy Savage are neurotic 40-ish siblings immersed in literary careers: he's a drama professor in upstate New York, she's an aspiring Manhattan playwright who cheerfully steals office supplies from her temp jobs to help make ends meet. They're not close to each other or to their father Lenny (Philip Bosco), who lives in the Southwest; their childhood — of which we learn little — was clearly not a happy one. (Their long-absent mother, we learn, was "kind of obsolete in the parenting department.") Then the phone call comes: Lenny has dementia and needs to be cared for; only his children are left to do this for him.

Jenkins (in her first feature since the 1998 black comedy "Slums of Beverly Hills") depicts Arizona as a strange, surreal place — in the film's witty opening sequence, a chorus line of female retirees emerges from a hedge for a slow-motion tap dance. Jon and Wendy, arriving from New York, look pasty and out of place, squinting helplessly into the sun. A plan is quickly made: Jon will return home and find a suitable nursing home; Wendy will deal with closing down Lenny's household and will then fly east with him. (She finds prescription painkillers in her father's bathroom and pops a few, looking briefly blissful.) The trip, with Lenny confused and wandering, is nightmarish; Hoffman's lost expression, when he sees his father slumped in a wheelchair at the journey's end, is heartbreaking.

"The Savages," as you've no doubt surmised by now, isn't cheery holiday fare, and there's no magical scene in which Lenny apologizes to his children for the past and thanks them for the sacrifices they're now making. And yet Jenkins makes her film unexpectedly uplifting, in a small-scale, real-life kind of way.

Through the process of caring for their father, Jon and Wendy become less alone; their long-ingrained habit of kvetching at each other (done flawlessly and amusingly by Hoffman and Linney, and instantly recognizable by anyone who's ever been irritated with a sibling) softens. And while the film's final scene isn't exactly a happy ending, it's still a tiny triumph: Life does, and will, go on; sometimes with unexpected company.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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