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Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008

Relatively Troubled

Family faces dementia

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More and more children are faced with parents lingering on in the dimming half-life of dementia. Unable to care for themselves or sometimes even remember who they are, the parents are a burden, a flashpoint of guilt, an opportunity for unselfish love. The problem is compounded when the parent is estranged from his children, as is old Lenny in The Savages. It gets even more complicated when the children are estranged from each other.

In her first film since her memorable 1998 debut, Slums of Beverly Hills, director Tamara Jenkins explores the problems arising from dementia—in the context of a failed family—with dry humor and calm heartbreak. Laura Linney has been nominated by the Academy for Best Actress as Lenny’s daughter Wendy Savage. Linney is invisible within her character, playing the New York bohemian with transparent empathy as she struggles through life with the aid of white lies. An aspiring playwright, Wendy’s work-in-progress is an autobiographical account of growing up in a dysfunctional and motherless family.

Linney plays the main character, but the gravity often shifts to the magnificent Philip Seymour Hoffman as Wendy’s brother Jon, a college professor struggling to complete his tenure-setting opus on Bertolt Brecht. Where Wendy tends toward sentiment, Jon is cold common sense, phlegmatic and cynical when pushed. For him, the sudden call to intervene in dad’s life is an imposition.

It’s a joyless burden he is willing to shoulder, but only to a point. For his part, dad was probably never an easy man to love. He had been virtually out of touch for years, living with a lady friend in the pastel hell of Sun City, Ariz., a town where golf carts challenge cars for command of the road. After she drops dead at a beauty salon staffed by uncomprehending East Asians, her painfully suburban children evict Lenny and put the house where he had lived on the market before Wendy and Jon can arrive. Lenny maintains a precarious hold on dignity (in a strong performance by Philip Bosco), when he isn’t entirely lost or angry in a world that no longer makes much sense.

As a matter of convenience, Jon finds Lenny a bed in a nursing home near his campus, the optimistically named Valley View Rehabilitation Center. Wendy holds out for something more upscale, the sort of place whose brochure contains phrases that begin with the fulsome “We are committed...” and refers to itself as a “community of elders.” Wendy and Jon share little in common any longer except for a few memories. They live in separate, unsatisfied lives. She carries on reluctantly with a sexually voracious married man, telling him that her pap smear was positive in an effort to dampen his unwanted ardor. She wants emotional sustenance, which most men find more difficult to offer than sex. Jon’s Polish girlfriend is about to return home because her visa has expired and he won’t marry her. Marriage to a fellow academic with uncertain career opportunities would be another emotional imposition on a man who draws life from his head, not his heart.

In Slums of Beverly Hills the family, loosely inspired by Jenkins’ own, struggles to hang together against all difficulties. In The Savages the family ties had long ago disintegrated, leaving the ghosts of attachment spectral and uncertain, yet exerting their influence on living situations. The Savages observes its characters and their situations with dry eyes but a beating heart, never schmaltzing it up but never denying the flawed humanity of all parties.
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