The strength of ‘The Savages’ lies in its sensitivity to the awkward, contradictory impulses that nurture and fray the relationships between siblings, lovers, parents and children. Strange, given this impressive emotional realism, that its most memorable sequences verge on the surreal: the film opens like ‘Blue Velvet’ on vacation, with a sun-drenched, colour-saturated slow-motion sequence involving outlandish topiary, formation-dancing seniors, multiple golf carts and giant cacti.
This is Sun City, Arizona, the retirement town where Lenny (Philip Bosco) lives with his partner and presents the angry outbursts and dirty protests of incipient dementia. When Lenny’s partner dies, her family turfs him out, forcing responsibility on to his estranged children in New York: would-be playwright Wendy (Laura Linney), who’s having an affair with an older neighbour, and Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an academic working on Brecht and in denial about his Polish girlfriend returning home.
Subjects seldom aired in American cinema – ageing, compromise, death – take centre stage in Jenkins’ sharp, witty script, which captures well the short-cuts to affection and irritation that intimacy brings, even if it offers a too-neat arc of growth and redemption and several off-the-peg touches (cue words of wisdom from an African nurse).
The performances, however, are terrific. At one point, Jon sprains his neck, prompting an outlandish bit of DIY physiotherapy involving weights and a door-mounted neck brace. While he’s ensconced in this contraption, Wendy reports winning a grant for which Jon was rejected. As envy, self-pity and pride compete for control of his features, Hoffman shows he can give an acting masterclass even with his head in a sling.