At the start of Tamara Jenkins’ belated follow-up to 1998’s Slums Of Beverly Hills, an exasperated gipper (Philip Bosco) shows his displeasure with his care worker by scrawling insults on the wall in his own faeces. Fortunately, that’s the only shit writing in this thoughtful, mordant and exquisitely scripted portrait of an estranged brother and sister forced to come together to look for a nursing home for their ailing father as he slowly slips into dementia. As pitches go, it’s right up there with Schindler’s List. Respect to Jenkins, then, for milking her melancholy scenario for so much wry, humane humour before having us reach for the inevitable hanky. It helps she has Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, two of the best screen actors of their generation, bringing all the pathos and complexity they can muster to the roles of Jon and Wendy Savage, the bickering siblings trying to do right by a testy parent who, one suspects, wouldn’t lift a finger if the boot was on the other foot.
With a book on Brecht to complete and a relationship in freefall, harassed literary professor Jon plumps for convenience by picking the easiest option available: a rundown facility near to his Buffalo apartment. But guilt-ridden Wendy – an unsuccessful New York playwright whose romantic life goes no further than the occasional philander with her married neighbour – feels that they should be doing more, festooning Bosco’s sparse room with nick-nacks and checking out upscale care homes they can ill afford.
Underneath Jon’s pragmatism and Wendy’s neuroses lies an emotional minefield of heartache and regret that Jenkins negotiates with enough sensitivity to excuse the occasional inroad into mawkishness. She also banks enough goodwill to excuse an incongruously upbeat coda that seems to imply the long, lingering decline of a loved one is just the thing to get your life back on track. Hoffman and Linney, meanwhile, make such a pitch-perfect pairing it’s difficult to believe no one’s thought to put them together in a movie before.
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Two fine performances, a subject close to all our hearts and a screenplay that manages to be both brilliantly witty and almost unbearably poignant add up to the best family comedy-drama since Little Miss Sunshine.