Watched in the Toronto International Film Festival with a personal appearance of director Tarama Jenkins
Perhaps because the two protagonists and a main support character are all theatre people, a reminder to the effect that "this is real life" has been uttered several times at the early part of the movie, by more than one character. Attentive audience will take the hint: this is no melodrama, but an honest, while insightful, depiction of what real life is like.
We have the currently two best actors for such real-life roles, Philip Seymore Hoffman and Laura Linney, playing respectively 42-year-pld brother Jon Savage, a theatre-art professor in Buffalo and 39-year-old "little sister" Wendy Savage, who aspires to the seemingly elusive career as a playwright in New York. Although Hoffman won his Oscar by playing an eccentric character (Truman Capote), it is in portraying common everyday characters that he really shines and deserves recognition, such as the compulsive gambler in "Owning Mahowny" (2003). It is certainly good news that after a brief detour to "Mission impossible III", he comes back to make movies like "The Savages". Linney has been brilliant in movies like "Kinsey" (2004) (best supporting actress nominee) and "The squid and the whale" (2005), brilliant and under-recognized. Many think that "The Savages" could be the one to fetch her an Oscar but, as much as I hope that this will happen, I am not optimistic. If you look a the winners of best lead actress in the last few years, you'll likely agree with me that Wendy Savage is not the type of role that will impress Oscar voters, regardless of how brilliant the performance is.
The plot, if you can call it one, is simplicity itself. The siblings, who live only about 500 miles away from each other but apparently do not make frequent contact, are called together to fly to Sun City, Arizona, to take care of their aging father whose advancing dementia makes it impossible for him to stay in a retirement community. The rest of the story basically follows how they put him in a nursing home in Buffalo near Jon's house, to the time he finally dies. Painful the scenario is, it is so very familiar and quite inevitable to many average people who have parents surviving to old age. And as I hinted, this film is entirely devoid of melodrama. There are huge potentials for melodrama: irresponsible parents abandoning young children, the usual sibling rivalry, midlife crisis, extramarital affair (single Wendy with married man), uncertain relationship (Jon's 3-year-long Polish girlfriend's visa soon expires and despite their love, they don't want marriage), career frustrations and agonies of aging and dying. Under Tamara Jenkins' levelheaded and sensible direction, these characters react to these situations in a normal way, get emotional occasionally but never fly of the handle or scream until they choke. Nor do things go to the other extreme to minimalism average humans are not stoics.
As my summary line suggests about this movie, "it is real life". "What a dull movie" you may exclaim. Anything but dull! Life, you see, is full of these un-melodramatic little dramas. It takes an insightful and sensitive director to extract the funny elements out of tragedy, poignancy out of comedy and both out of mundane daily life. You are fully absorbed in the events surrounding the brother and sister for the very simple reason that they are so real. In addition, there is a large ensemble of interesting supporting characters. Some are rather substantial parts such as Wendy's lover Larry (Peter Friedman) while others may appear for only a minute. But they all serve to both entertain you and enrich the world of the Savages. Oh yes, there's a cat and a dog too, not to mention a plant.