Tamara Jenkins' "The Savages" goes where most movies wouldn't think of treading, into the dispiriting world of downscale nursing homes. Tracing the efforts of a middle-aged brother and sister first to place their addled father in an institution, and then to endure his rapid decline, the film admirably takes as its starting point a situation most of us would probably rather not think about. Beautifully acted and intermittently incisive, it's ultimately a little disappointing. Although the first hour often has the immediacy and arresting detail of a documentary, the latter half suffers from degenerative indy-itis, that epidemic syndrome whose main symptom is unwarranted interest in the ennui afflicting well-read urban misfits.
As the movie begins, the fading patriarch, Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco), has started treating his toilet as a source of art supplies. He displays a gift for obscene graffiti. As it turns out, he's the only one in the family not suffering from writer's block, a condition that this film ultimately finds more interesting than dementia. Lenny's son, Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is an English professor from Buffalo struggling to complete a book on Brecht, and his daughter, Wendy (Laura Linney), is a failed playwright with few prospects in her professional or personal life.
Although the grown-up children bear the names of the Darlings in "Peter Pan," the Savage family has lived no fairy tale. In his prime, Lenny was a negligent brute, given to beating his son. By the time he starts falling apart, his adult children haven't heard from him in years and seem in only sporadic contact with each other. In short order, this glum, desperate, surly trio finds itself on the wintry shores of Lake Erie and in the throes of an extended family reunion, whose poles are Lenny's shabby institutional home and Jon's book-strewn wreck of a house.
Unlike "On Golden Pond," "The Savages" does not interest itself in score-settling of resentful children and doddering parents. Lenny is too far gone from the start; he's merely a presence to be fed when he's hungry and pacified when he erupts. Instead, the film increasingly bores in on Jon and Wendy taking stock of their rather disappointing circumstances as they lurch past life's halfway point.
Though Jon and Wendy are quite poor at appraising themselves, each is quite good at pointing out the flaws in the other's life. Wendy calls out commitment-shy Jon for letting his adorable girlfriend slip away. Jon chides Wendy for acquiescing to a pointless dalliance with a married man (Peter Friedman). In short, they tell each other things they need to be told, to improbably good effect. While the first half of "The Savages" sets us up for a grim acknowledgment of those commonplace horrors we're powerless to change, the last act is more like a stern injunction to turn lemons into lemonade. Each part of this uneasy marriage of tones negates the other.
Although the title suggests an ensemble piece, the movie ends up really being about Wendy, the only character in almost every scene. And Linney is marvelous at capturing the forced chirpiness of a playwright on the brink of admitting that she's no good and of a daughter determined to keep faith with a father who never cared for her.
But she's a hard character to warm to. In love with "drama," she tells strange lies about herself, perhaps hoping to be found out. She's short with the nurses (her father's daughter in this regard). After a while, her talent for denial, perhaps an artifact of her painful childhood, stops being psychologically interesting and starts being simply annoying. You just want Olympia Dukakis to show up and shout at her, "Your life's going down the toilet." Her brother -- and even, in a striking scene, her lover tries to tell her as much, and the movie would have us believe she gets the message, but only by resorting to a cheery ending that is shallow and forced.
Like Linney, the men in the piece are splendid. Hoffman is a study in doomed resignation; but for the sheer magnetism of his performance, Bosco is the real anchor of the movie. Rage, confusion, childish delight each emotional phase of his debility comes through with terrifying clarity. We're left wishing the script paid as much attention to him as to the younger folks. (R) 113 min. S
The release of this film in the Richmond area has been rescheduled.