The Savages is a well-written, insightful and often funny movie with a talented cast, but I find it strangely unsatisfying. The subject matter sounds disturbing, but it really isn’t upsetting to watch; it’s more of a comedy than anything else. Maybe that’s the problem.
Lenny Savage (Peter Friedman) is an old man who is left with no place to live by the death of his long-time girlfriend. Since he is suffering from dementia the responsibility for seeing that he is taken care of falls on his two grown children, who have been out of touch with him for decades. They are somewhat flakey characters but they want to do the right thing and try their best.
Wendy Savage (Laura Linney) is an unproduced playwright who spends her days as a temp worker while carrying on a pitiful affair with an older married man. Her capacity for self-deception is remarkable.
Her brother Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a drama professor at a New England college, specializing in the works of Bertolt Brecht. He is hard-headed, rational and unsentimental, or at least that’s how he thinks of himself.
What we have here is the story of the death of a man whose children won’t miss him when he’s gone. That’s sort of sad, but it won’t make you cry. The demented Lenny is pretty unlikeable and it’s pretty clear that he was unlikeable even before he was demented.
So the move necessarily focuses on Jon and Wendy, and their part of the movie boils down to a rather aimless slice-of-life. Perhaps they both grow up a bit, but nothing is really resolved.
This is probably deliberate and the reasons will be clear if you pay attention to the excerpt that we hear from Jon’s lecture on Bertolt Brecht. Which is all very clever, but I was left feeling “the hell with Bertolt Brecht! I want a real story!”