'Savages' puts the fun in family dysfunction

Al Alexander

Like the late, great playwright Tennessee Williams, Tamara Jenkins has a knack for creating nihilistic narcissists you can’t help but empathize with.

Yes, you’d cross the street to avoid them. But at a safe distance, like say your seat at the megaloplex, they become fascinating studies of big egos and self-loathing.

Jon and Wendy Savage are two such losers; squabbling siblings who can’t stand the sight of each other because, unbeknownst to them, they are mirror images — self-involved know-it-alls oblivious to everyone and everything around them.

They are the center of Jenkins’ darkly humorous “The Savages,” a film that consistently mines the “fun” in family dysfunction by fashioning a coming-of-age story in which the protagonists, exquisitely inhabited by Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, are closer to AARP than MTV.

It’s quite a departure from Jenkins’ first film, the equally strong “Slums of Beverly Hills,” a strangely loving ode to an eccentric, resourceful father (Alan Arkin) who followed an unconventional blueprint for child rearing.

Where that movie was light and frothy, “The Savages” is almost misanthropic, as the estranged siblings are forced to deal with each other after their poor-excuse of a father (Tony-winner Philip Bosco) suddenly finds himself homeless and ravaged by dementia.

Sounds depressing, doesn’t it? Just wrong for the holidays? But Jenkins handles the subject matter with so much sharp-witted humor and insight that it’s downright life-affirming.

It helps, of course, that Jenkins has three of today’s finest actors. But the reason “The Savages” slays is the warmth and compassion her writing breathes into the struggles the Savages encounter as they struggle to adjust to the idea that their once-tyrannical father is now as helpless as a baby.

In that respect, the film is both cathartic and cautionary in taking on the issue that worries just about every middle-aged person: carrying for an incapacitated parent. Jenkins holds nothing back, either, often drawing on her experiences with her own father’s death from dementia.

It lends the film a palpable realism that contrasts nicely with the absurdity of Jon and Wendy, and their so-called lives.

He is a theater professor in snowy Buffalo living under the grandiose illusion that his upcoming book on Brecht will make him a star; while she is a failed New York playwright living off temp jobs and various grants meant for the real victims of 9/11.

No surprise: both are single and chasing after paramours they either don’t want or can’t have. Yet like “Seinfeld’s” equally superficial Jerry and George, they suck you in. You root for them to finally wake up and smell the nursing home that could well be their final destinations.

Bringing them so vividly to life would be a strain for most actors, but Linney and Hoffman make it look effortless, each summoning their uncanny ability to create characters that stay with you even longer than the movies they’re in.

It’s Bosco, though, who leaves them in the dust, lending a quiet dignity to Lenny Savage that shines through even when he’s caught in the numerous humiliations of aging.

It’s easily one of the bravest, most selfless performances I’ve seen. He deserves to be remember at Oscar time, and so does “The Savages,” with its unflinching look at aging. It shows us the true meaning of what it means to die laughing.

Grade: B+

Rated R. “The Savages” contains sexuality and language.