"The Savages," about a son and daughter coping with their father's dementia, is a fairly good example of one of my least-cherished indie-movie genres – the dysfunctional-family talkfest. It's not that dysfunctional families cannot be the stuff of great drama – Eugene O'Neill did pretty well with his own in "Long Day's Journey Into Night." It's just that, too often, the family disarray in these movies is an excuse for a lot of whiney therapyspeak promulgated by overbearing overactors in dank settings.
Writer-director Tamara Jenkins, whose last film was "The Slums of Beverly Hills" almost a decade ago, seems to be acutely aware of the problem. Her solution, as often as possible, is to yank her movie out of the doldrums with quick hits of humor. She gives a seriously depressing subject the old show-biz whammy, and who can blame her?
Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco), whose behavior has become increasingly deranged, is suddenly on his own following the death of his live-in lady friend in their Arizona retirement community. His two children, Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy (Laura Linney), are called upon to arrange for his care. Neither has been especially close to the old man or, for that matter, to each other.
Jon, who lives in Buffalo, is a theater professor who is overdue on a book about Bertolt Brecht and has a Polish girlfriend with an expired visa.
Wendy is an aspiring playwright from Manhattan who survives on temp jobs and is having a dreary affair with a married neighbor.
Jenkins, rather too conveniently, sets these two siblings up as temperamental opposites. Jon is sluggish and subdued; everything about him seems as unmade as his bed. Wendy is bristling with anxieties.
Their yin and yang seems suspiciously like a screenwriter's conceit, but at least it makes for some spirited confrontations. Or, in the case of Linney, overspirited – she appears to have been directed to play each scene in a state of near hysteria.
Hoffman, however, comes through with a solid piece of acting that anchors Jenkins's shenanigans. It turns out that Jon's slogginess masks a decency – he's trying very hard to do right by everybody.
As thin and jokey as this movie often is, I prefer it to the serioso treatment that usually encrusts this type of material. At its best, "The Savages" captures the lunacy that comes with coping with sorrow. Grade: B
• Rated R for some sexuality and language.