Senior Moments

By Pride, Ray | Filmmaker, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview
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Senior Moments

Pride, Ray, Filmmaker

Nine years after making SLUMS OP BEVERLY HILLS, Tamara Jenkins returns to feature films with a comical but highly emotional look inside one family's turbulent relationship with THE SAVAGES.

Note-perfect, Tamara Jenkins's The Savages was one of Sundance 2007's stellar surprises. Where another unlikely gem from the festival, Once, was bittersweet in its simple romance, Jenkins's long-in-coming sophomore directorial entry (after 1998's Slums of Beverly Hills) is a complex mesh of tones and social observations. The film is witty about neurosis and unblinking about mortality and is filled with the sort of melancholy humanism we only get from European features these days. Yet it also is imbued with the observational precision and winning performances of the best American comedies.

Jenkins's Savages are a scattered clan. Father Lenny (Philip Bosco) approaches his own sunset in Sun City, Arizona; semi-estranged daughter Wendy (Laura Linney) is a New York City playwright who, after many years, is surviving on temp jobs and her brother Jon, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is an academic struggling with an epic book on Bertolt Brecht. The two siblings are brought together after their father acts out against his nurse in a scatological way and they have to find him a new home whether their own or one in assisted living. There are nicely nuanced side characters and witty bits, but The Savages belongs to these three actors, who are at the top of their game. The film boasts some of the most formidable comic dialogue of the year and Jenkins's screenplay is lovingly structured. A sampling of her ear for dialogue: "We're not in therapy right now, we're in real life" and "I'm not leaving you alone, I'm hanging up." Mostly though, what Jenkins gets down is behavior, and it's exquisitely performed. We spoke in late summer at a café near her apartment in New York City's East Village, which she shares with her husband, screenwriter Jim Taylor (Sideways, About Schmidt), and talked about casting, tone, finding ways around writer's block and what it's like to have so much time pass between features. Fox Searchlight opens the film in late November.

At film festivals, I'm not one of those people who rushes to weigh in after premieres, but after the Sundance press screening of The Savages, I sat cross-legged in the Holiday Village and posted a few notes right away. I called it an unlikely mix of Annie Hall and... The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.The [publicists] emailed it to me and I was like, that is fucking hilarious. Obviously you were responding to something about the dialogue...

Where it's witty but not necessarily a punch Une. Where it's character observation. I appreciated that because, well, it's been an interesting thermometer. Some people say [the movie] is so fanny, and some people say it's so sad or depressing. I was grateful you appreciated the language of it, and that these are sort of hyperarticulate people having to do something that being hyper-articulate doesn't help you with.

I always find it auspicious when a film like this can deal with essential human pain, mortification, embarrassment and humiliation, and then find a way to laugh at it without humiliating the characters. And one of the cruel things in your movie is the title. Was this family always going to be the Savages? I can't remember when that happened.

It sets up that you're going to deal with people reduced to elemental, primal things they don't have defenses for. These Savages don't know how to make nice. Well, also there's something about just taking old people and putting them in buildings and not dealing with them - the sort of savagery of old age and the way it ravages you and strips you of anything that would be perceived as civilized.

The Savages opens and you have this geriatric dance number of sorts - it's like the June Taylor Dancers from the old Jackie Gleason show - and we meet Mr. Savage, Philip Bosco. Within five minutes, what does he do to act out?

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