One of the best moments in The Savages comes at the beginning when we see Wendy Savage (Laura Linney) filling out a grant application on an office computer obviously not intended for such purposes. We watch as she types, describing the play for which she is soliciting philanthropic support, “my semi-autobiographical play, Wake Me When It’s Over.” Then she pauses, goes back and inserts the word “subversive” before “semi-autobiographical.” It’s a good joke and suggests a certain irony, a certain self-awareness on the part of writer-director Tamara Jenkins (The Slums of Beverly Hills). It also implies a promise that this sense of self-irony will ultimately prevent The Savages itself from becoming the predictably “subversive,” semi-autobiographical drama that it is already at this point threatening to become. This promise is only partly fulfilled.
On the one hand, Wendy is supposed to be seen as part of the intellectual lumpenproletariat, an unproduced playwright 39 years old who steals office supplies from the places where she ekes out a living temping and applies for grants everywhere she can — including FEMA, as she claims to have been traumatized by being in New York on 9/11. When she unexpectedly gets the FEMA grant, she tells her brother Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) it’s a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her private life is also rather a mess, as she appears to have no friends or social ties and she his carrying on a passionless affair with a married man (Peter Friedman) from a neighboring apartment. This is not a very attractive character, though she is potentially a very funny one.
On the other hand, it gradually becomes clear that she is meant to be a Cinderella-like heroine after all. If it is possible to make that transformation come off, I don’t think it is possible for Ms. Jenkins to do it by persuading us that the subversive, semi-autobiographical Wake Me When It’s Over should be taken seriously. Yet this is what she tries to do. We infer, from the bit of the play we see, that it is that peculiar sort of revenge comedy in which the American theatre has long specialized: namely, an attack by grown children on their parents — especially brutish fathers wedded to supposedly outdated notions of manliness — for the way they were raised. And the cliche echoes back through Ms. Jenkins’s film. How much more interesting if the cliche were actually treated subversively instead of merely being repeated!
The father in this case is Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) who, when the film begins, is living in Sun City, Arizona, with a female-companion who is stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. When she dies, her grown children put her house up for sale and force Lenny onto the hands of Wendy and Jon (I wonder if the names are meant to suggest an allusion to Peter Pan?), neither of whom appears to have the slightest filial feeling for the old codger. To be sure, he is unpleasant enough to make their lack of affection perfectly understandable — and to confirm the unhappiness of their upbringing hinted at elsewhere. But both children are middle-class enough to feel he is a responsibility they cannot just walk away from.
Jon’s sense of filial obligation is somewhat more vestigial than Wendy’s. He is also hanging on precariously to a position one or two steps up the intellectual status-ladder from his younger sister as a junior faculty member in theatre-studies at a less-than-distinguished institution of higher learning in Buffalo, New York, and is writing a book about Bertholt Brecht. He too seems a lonely sort and is in the process of separating from his girlfriend, Kasia (Cara Seymour), who is returning to her native Poland. But he takes charge at the moment of crisis and appears to have not the slightest compunction about dumping his father in the cheapest nursing home he can find in Buffalo. Wendy is more guilt-stricken. “We are horrible, horrible, horrible people” she says to Jon as they walk out of the nursing home on their father’s first night there.
Wendy comes to live with Jon for a while in his now-empty house, which she says looks as if the Unibomber lives there, until dad settles in. “We’re doing the right thing, Wen,” he reassures her. “We’re taking better care of the old man than he ever did of us.” This is one of several references to the deep resentments harbored by both children against their father, whom they haven’t seen in years and whose sudden need for their attention comes as an almost intolerable interruption to their eminently interruptible lives. Wendy, however, briefly and without success tries to arrange for his care in a more up-market institution. Her effort is sabotaged by dad himself whose orneriness seems long to antedate the infirmities of age which have doubtless exacerbated it.
Dramatically, what wants to happen at this point is that the kids must learn to look at their father in a different light. There is even an opening for such a development when (if I read it right) it is hinted that, even in old age, the old man is bitter about his own upbringing. But nothing is done with this. Not much else happens either. Nobody develops or changes, and the film for all its virtues settles into an unhealthy stagnancy. Its virtues include both the wit of the writing and fine performances by Miss Linney and Mr. Hoffman in the principal roles. Mr. Bosco is also very good as the old man, but he is imprisoned by Ms. Jenkins’s hatred of him and turned into little more than that familiar cinematic and dramatic caricature, the bad dad. That we can come away from this movie with no more sympathy towards or understanding of the father than his children have is a real dramatic failure, it seems to me.
At one point, Wendy has a brief flirtation with Jimmy (Gbenga Akinnagbe) an African-born orderly in the nursing home and asks him if he would like to read her play. He says he would and, when he has read it, tells her that he liked it. “You didn’t think it was a bunch of middle-class whining?” she asks him. “Some spoiled American complaining about her childhood?”
“Not at all,” he says reassuringly.
Ms. Jenkins is cutting just a little too near the bone here. Insofar as Wake Me When It’s Over is akin to The Savages — and that will probably seem to most people pretty far — it bears a distinctly uncomfortable resemblance to less artful and less amusing sorts of middle-class whining.
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