The Savages is the story of a fractured family, separated not least by geography, that reunites on the occasion of an aged parent’s health. Both siblings haven’t seen their father in years, so what was probably a slow decline seems to them a sudden plunge into senility. Both have their own problems, and neither is mature enough or equipped to care for their father. Who abandoned whom?
Curiously, the two siblings have defined their lives by two very different aspects of the theater: Wendy (Laura Linney) is a frustrated writer, endlessly applying for grants instead of actually writing. Rather, she brings a great deal of fiction into her everyday life: she manufactures drama at every turn, not just with her lover but also with her own body (she has a mean case of hypochondria). She is definitely a narcissist; her lover is only slightly older than she, but to her he is an “older man.” Also, note her hysterical (in both senses of the word) rationale for her belief that she is above an affair: “I have an M.F.A.”
Her brother Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a college professor trapped in a perpetually unfinished book analyzing Brecht. Based on his attitude towards Wendy and her lover (a theater director), he evidently looks down on those that do the dirty business of actually creating theater.
In a coda, we see that both Jon and Wendy appear to have grown, and become unstuck in the careers and personal lives. Unfortunately, the ending rings false, and not in keeping with the tone of the events before it. Is writer/director Tamara Jenkins’ theme that the death of a parent is a final stepping stone in growing up? If so, how and why? As they did not witness their father’s aging, the audience did not witness Wendy and Jon’s offscreen growth.
Two talented Chrises make contributions: Gbenga Akinnagbe (Chris in HBO’s The Wire) appears as perhaps the most mature and sensible character in the film. And Chris Ware was an excellent choice to design the poster and DVD menus, for The Savages would fit very nicely alongside his Acme Novelty Library comic book series.