The Savage Breast

Tamara Jenkins’ new film offers a coruscating analysis of a failed American family, where a brother and sister are brought together to care for their estranged father once he shows signs of Parkinson’s disease. Jon and Wendy Savage (Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) have fallen out of touch with one another, even though they both live in New York and are both writers of a kind. He’s a literary professor trying to finish a long-gestating biography of Bertolt Brecht, she’s an unproduced playwright who spends her time between temping jobs applying for, and failing to get, funding from arts institutions. Neither is married, although she is conducting a grimy affair with a married neighbour and he is about to say a muted goodbye to his Polish girlfriend, whose work visa has expired.

Then, late one night, comes the call that their father Lenny (Phillip Bosco) is behaving oddly, news not unconnected to the fact that his elderly girlfriend has passed away and he must move from the house they shared in suburban Arizona. So the siblings, awkwardly reunited, travel to Phoenix to collect their mean-hearted father and return him to a care-home on the East coast, a journey that at first is nothing more than a hassle and at second, a major pain.

I’d watch Linney and Hoffmann do anything, in anything. Both are among the finest American actors working today; brave, brittle, contemporary players with deep reserves of emotion to draw on. They are outstanding here as deeply damaged people, ruined by uncaring parenting, divorce, struggle and self-loathing. As a study of dysfunction and disagreement, The Savages heaps irony on embarrassment to create a vicious miniature portrait of a family that has learned the hard way that love and happiness are concepts from fairytales; that real contentment comes from wherever you can find it, a stolen bottle of painkillers, an imaginary success, a bad affair.

Writer and director Jenkins has a keen eye for faintly surreal detail, but never sentimentalises the material, taking on the deceit and delusion with the same clinical approach she applies to the business of caring for the elderly. In one recurring motif, she has each character stare out the window of a moving car; Wendy in a daze of psychotropic bliss accompanied by birdsong, Jon through a wintry city while listening to a Brechtian torchsong, Lenny blankly regarding bare trees before settling on a cross-strewn graveyard. As the story plays out, interest levels vary in line with the dwindling incident and an overly dyspeptic world view, but that's not to deny the acting talents on display, or their completion of difficult, spiky characters. There are jokes scattered among the miseries but they are the kind of ones that stick in your throat, like chicken bones or heartburn.


red said...

Oh, I'm glad I read this before going to see it- it's on next Tuesday in Rome in English so I have it scheduled. But I thought it was a comedy-comedy.
I'm totally with you on the Linney and Hoffman thing, I'm looking forward to seeing them on screen together.

Annie Rhiannon said...

"There are jokes scattered among the miseries but they are the kind of ones that stick in your throat, like chicken bones or heartburn."

Nice analogy. I really enjoyed this film, though it depressed me.

Love the blog, by the way. Found you via Sinead's place.

TenaciousT said...

Really enjoyed this film and am with you on Linney and Hoffman-great actors. Agree with Annie that it is a bit depressing- especially since it hit close to home for me- but think it rises above it in the end. The humour is great- love the big red pillow scene!