The Savages (2007)

Published on August 17th, 2011

Alex recommends 2007’s under appreciated great movie, The Savages. Linney! Hoffman!

2007 was a pretty great year for movies, with No Country for Old Men, Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I’m Not There, Gone Baby Gone, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The Bourne Ultimatum… do you see where I’m going with this? It was a good year. The problem is that with so many great, deservedly recognized movies, there were bound to be a couple that don’t get the full credit they should. The Savages isn’t the best movie of that year (it might not even be in the top 5 of that list I just rattled off), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t absolutely great.


As I mentioned when I recommended Sugar, I find it rare that a movie focuses more on character than plot or theme; this is one of those rare films. Siblings Wendy and Jon Savage (Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman respectively) have to find a nursing home for their father (Philip Bosco) as he struggles with dementia. This all sounds like something overly dramatic, but I assure you that, somehow, it isn’t. It’s actually remarkably funny, and I would probably consider The Savages a comedy more than I would a drama.

And here’s the most difficult part about trying to convince somebody to watch this movie: it sounds like every other boring family drama, making it borderline impossible to successfully recommend. It’s a smaller scale of when I yell “BUT IT’S BARELY ABOUT FOOTBALL!” at you while trying to convince you to watch Friday Night Lights, except this way I have to interject with italics to further this point as opposed to actually getting frustrated and yelling. One way communication is trickier that way, but that probably also helps me to keep more friends.

Wendy and Jon’s relationship with their father has never been a particularly good one, and at the beginning of the movie they haven’t seen each other for years. Wendy and Jon are not particularly close with each other either, and the movie follows them as they get to know each other again. The acting is flawless on each of their parts, but let’s be serious, if you get Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney in the same scene, acting will not be your problem. And with The Savages, Tamara Jenkins’ writing certainly isn’t a problem either.

The movie begins with a hilariously surreal musical sequence before moving onto some fairly dramatic plot exposition. The first 45 minutes aren’t particularly funny, as the majority of that time is spent setting up the main characters’ relationships, albeit in a generally entertaining fashion. This set-up is absolutely essential to the second half of the movie, however, for once the audience knows the characters, the film gets the opportunity to focus on the laughs. And that is the biggest strength of this movie: the writing. I enjoy movies that set up their world and then just sort of live in it for a while, and in The Savages you get about an hour of that. Wendy and Jon’s relationship is enjoyable to just watch, and I wish more movies would give you something like that.

Because of the setup in the first half of the movie, we know these characters and have an idea as to how they will react. We know that when Jon hurts himself, Wendy will tap into her maternal urges to take care of him while Jon will downplay everything about the injury. Their scene in Jon’s hallway is absolutely hilarious, and it can only be that funny because of the large amount of setup we’re given before we get there.

This movie, as a whole, is hilarious. It’s not just this scene, but also the scene where Jon gets hurt, the cookies scene, the pillow scene, etc.

The Savages is close in tone to Six Feet Under, but without the occasional feeling of self-importance and pretension (that being said, I loved Six Feet Under). The Savages is a mixture of comedy and drama, and the comedy is made much funnier because the drama is so effective. Not only do you laugh at the joke, but you also laugh as a release from the fairly heavy subject matter you’ve been paying attention to. Which, you know, is how people use humour in these situations.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney are two of my favourite actors, and they are both perfect in this movie. Yes, they are playing variations of the same character they normally play, but they do it really well. And how many actors out there consistently play drastically different characters anyway? I know Philip Seymour Hoffman does it more often than many, but he still plays the intelligent middle-aged writer type in about half of his movies… he just so happens to excel at it. And you could change a few words in those last couple of sentences and it would apply to Linney as well.

This is also the always-classy Laura Linney’s best performance by a mile, and The Savages is absolutely a Linney movie that also features Hoffman. Linney may almost always play the same type of intelligent, upper-middle class woman, but she is unbelievably good at it. And this might be the only movie where we see her character having no real idea about what to do with herself, which leads to some interesting moments that contrast the lost male character that we see in so many movies.

I saw this movie once when it was first released, and I absolutely loved it to the point that I was kind of afraid to watch it again in case it wasn’t as good as I remembered it. Well, it’s four years later and The Savages hasn’t gotten any worse. The way the movie builds on its characters is still beautiful, and the jokes haven’t gotten any less funny as time has passed. And while the last scene does sort of bow to a bit of a Hollywood cliché, the movie still works well enough for me.

All things considered, there are few really significant events that happen over the course of our lives, and what the Savage family is dealing with is something that can conceivably happen to most of us. What the movie The Savages tells us, however, is that you don’t need a high-concept movie to be thoroughly entertained. If you start with something that is well written, you’ve got a good chance to make a great, entertaining movie… the problem is that nobody will promote it other than bloggers who beg their friends to watch it.

Even then, some of these bloggers (read: me) may not do a convincing job of recommending the movie to you, and we then have to resort to some all-caps form of blog-yelling: WATCH THE SAVAGES, DAMMIT. Okay, so maybe it’s almost exactly like when I try to convince people to watch Friday Night Lights. Except Wendy and Jon don’t even mention football. They’re tennis players.

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