Like most film buffs, I was devastated when the news broke that Philip Seymour Hoffman died of accidental drug overdose on Feb. 2. He was 46. Described by the New York Times as “the most ambitious and the most widely admired American actor of his generation,” Hoffman was best known for “Capote” (2005), which earned him the Oscar for best actor.
To pay homage to Hoffman, I recently watched one of his lesser-known films, “The Savages,” about two siblings who are forced to re-connect with each other to deal with their aging father. I’ve seen this movie a few years ago and liked it.
The film starts in a sunny Arizona town, where retirees exercise merrily. Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) lives there, but he doesn’t share their cheerfulness. After fighting with the nursing assistant who cares for Lenny’s girlfriend, Lenny becomes belligerent and he writes on the bathroom wall with his feces. The man has lost his marbles. His two children—Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy Savage (Laura Linney)—travel to Arizona to pick him up.
Getting to Know the Savages
The siblings have their own problems. Wendy is an aspiring playwright who’s stuck in a temp job and an unsatisfying relationship with a married man. Jon, who has a Ph.D., is an underrated theater professor who’s writing a book about Bertolt Brecht. His Polish girlfriend is leaving the country because her visa is expiring. The siblings are not close to their father, but their mother has left the family a long time ago, so they feel obligated to care for him.
They take their father to snowy Buffalo, New York, where Jon (the oldest child) lives. They put him in a nursing home, which Wendy thinks is subpar. From Arizona to New York, we get to know the siblings better. Jon is more talented than Wendy, and she resents him for that and for his lack of interest in her writing. To get his attention, she lies about getting a Guggenheim grant for the play she’s writing. Indeed Jon is impressed and he invites her to stay with him so they could write together. “We can have our own little writers’ colony,” he says sweetly.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance was nuanced. Throughout the movie, his character treads lightly in front of high-strung Wendy and he weeps secretly in the bathroom during a phone conversation with his girlfriend.
But in an unexpected turn, Hoffman’s character erupts in anger. Wendy is hell-bent in transferring their father to a classier nursing home, and so, they all go to an interview with the nursing home’s administrator. The father fails the interview, triggering Jon’s explosion over Wendy’s “upward mobility fixation.” In an instant, Jon is transformed from timid to feral.
Laura Linney is the perfect match for Hoffman, pound for pound of talent. In one scene, she’s in a cheap motel with her married lover. In the middle of sex, she’s overcome by her disgust and blurts out: “I have an MFA, for God’s sake. This is such a cliché!” Her timing is impeccable; she’s both funny and sad.
It’s not all grim between the siblings. They share some tender moments: playing tennis together and Wendy feeding Jon after he hurt his neck. There’s a great shot of sibling bonding with nary a line. This takes place after the father dies and the siblings fall asleep presumably from sheer exhaustion. The scene shows them sleeping on Jon’s bed like children: he’s sprawled face down, while she’s curled up next to him, and her cat is napping at their feet.
Philip Seymour Hoffman appeared in more than 50 films in a career that spanned over 20 years. He was never less than stellar in any of his films, whether as a sidekick (“The Big Lebowski,”), or a villain (“Mission Impossible III”), or a leading man (“Capote”). He was such a remarkable and prolific actor that I’ve assumed he would be around to make brilliant films for a very long time. “The Savages” is a small film that reminds us about the giant talent of Philip Seymour Hoffman.