Tuesday, December 25, 2007

When father is away with dementia

Summary: "The Savages," from director Tamara Jenkins, is one of the most amusing and knowing movies ever made about the problems of dealing with an aging parent. What makes the movie so credible? Its two main characters -- a brother and sister played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney -- have no idea what to do when dad begins to disappear inside his own dementia.

Jenkins hasn't made a feature since 1998's "The Slums of Beverly Hills." Now that she's back with "The Savages," we only can hope that she doesn't wait another 9 years before deciding to move behind the camera again. Frank and often funny, "The Savages" shows us what happens when two grown (though not necessarily mature) siblings are asked to deal with a father who no longer can live on his own. Dad (Philip Bosco) loses his companion, his house and his mind -- all in the movie's opening scenes. It then falls to two ill-prepared children to figure out what to do.

Hoffman's Jon -- an academic who specializes in the plays of Brecht -- suggests that dad be transported from a retirement heaven in Arizona to a nursing home in Buffalo. That's where Jon Lives. From the sunny climes of Arizona to the frozen streets of Buffalo in the middle of a bad winter (and there aren't many other kinds in Buffalo) is journey enough to discourage even the most persistent of optimists and it throws the movie into the icy shadows of despair.

Under the best of circumstances, putting a parent in a nursing home is difficult, and "The Savages" hardly presents us with the best of circumstances. Both Jon and his sister Wendy have been living on their own -- he in Buffalo; she in Manhattan. They're not close to each other or to their father. Both have difficulty with relationships -- Jon with a Polish girlfriend whose visa has expired and Wendy with her married lover (Peter Friedman). Friedman's character stops by Wendy's apartment for quickies when he's supposed to be out walking his dog. So much for relationships.

Anyone who's ever dealt with an aging parent will find plenty that's familiar in Jenkins' trenchant little movie. Guilt. Worry. Anger. All of these emotions surface as Jon and Wendy -- even their names sound childish -- suddenly are forced to deal with a problem they can't ignore. Jon may try to lose himself in the books that are scattered around his apartment and Wendy may aspire to become a great playwright, but no amount of busy work or artistic aspiration can disguise what looms. In an odd way, "The Savages" is the first real coming-of-age picture that we've seen in some time, and if the characters are maturing late, well, maybe that's the cultural moment in which we find ourselves.

Watching Hoffman and Linney proves one of the movie's great pleasures. They're the Tracy and Hepburn of extended adolescence, and their interactions can be both touching and amusing. These are two of the finest actors working today, and if you want to see two flawless performances by one actor, you'd do well to catch Hoffman in both "The Savages" and "Charlie Wilson's War." You can't say the same about Linney, but only because she has only one movie in release this season.

For the most part, "The Savages" is a two-hander. Wendy temporarily moves to Buffalo to be near her father, taking up residence on Jon's couch. Life seems to contract for both of them, but in one particularly tender scene, Wendy has a late-night talk with a Nigerian hospital worker (Gbenga Akinnagbe), sharing the kind of intimacies that are possible when at least one participant in the conversation is under great stress.

When "The Savages" showed as the opening-night film of the Starz Denver Film Festival, I heard grumbling. "Too much a downer for opening night." "I lived through something like that and don't want to see it at the movies." I should point out that I did not regard "The Savages" as a downer. Honesty on film is too rare a commodity not to be celebrated when we find it. I also think that those of us who have lived through situations that resemble the one in the movie (and I have) should be applauding loudest.

So if you want "inspiration," go see "The Great Debaters." It's a good little movie, but if you want a slice of life that may strike close to home, "The Savages" awaits.


On the way out of a screening of Denzel Washington's "The Great Debaters," someone pointed out the obvious: This is a formula movie. But the strange thing about formula movies is that they often work. Hence, the formula.

If we've seen any number of movies about underdogs who wind up defeating supposedly superior powers, we haven't seen a story about a small black college in Texas where the debate team eventually takes on mighty on Harvard. Washington, who directed, plays debate coach Marvin B. Tolson, a professor who runs a tight ship at Wiley College. Tolson selects the members of the debate team and treats them with a mixture of respect and tough love.

James Farmer Jr., who eventually helped found the Congress of Racial Equality and who became a leading spokesman for Civil Rights, portrays the team's youngest member in a story that's loosely based on fact. Farmer's played with innocence and charm by Denzel Whitaker, no relation to either Washington or to Forest Whitaker, who appears as James Farmer Sr., a reverend and a man of keen intellect.

Washington obtains fine performances all around, and manages to offer a schematic but nonetheless telling portrait of the Jim Crow South. Harvard's debaters didn't have to push aside images of lynchings before focusing their powers of concentration. The Wiley debaters did.

Washington, who also directed "Antwone Fisher," seems to know that this kind of exercise doesn't allow for much digression. Still, Tolson's interest in organizing poor Texas sharecroppers (both black and white) probably doesn't receive as much attention as it should, maybe because Washington never tries to divert attention from the movie's young cast.

"The Great Debaters" ends with a predictable contest, but at least the participants are called upon to exercise wit, courage and intellect rather than the athletic prowess so many similar movies glorify. It's a nice way to freshen a formula.

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