No question, Laura Linney is the go-to gal for inter-sibling strife. Her troubled scuffle with an institutionalised brother cut through the Christmas-pud mush of Love Actually, while she struck sparks with Mark Ruffalo as the elder versions of two suddenly orphaned kid-sibs in You Can Count On Me. The central dynamic and funny-sad sensibility of that film echo strongly in the scabrous and sometimes hilarious The Savages – although this is a story about facing death’s arrival rather than its aftermath.
The nearly departed is Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco), a dementia sufferer smearing shit on the walls of the retirement home that promptly expels him into the reluctant care of Wendy (Linney) and Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) – the middle-aged offspring that he dumped as sprogs. Flouting Hollywood codes of conduct, this is one estrangement that can’t be smoothed by hugs, bromides or gestures of self-sacrifice. Instead, guilt, shame and pain simmer away as bro and sis needle each other while watching pops inch ever closer to oblivion.
If it sounds like a toughie, it is. But in a quiet, un-wallowy way. Writer/director Tamara Jenkins’ Oscar-nominated screenplay is leavened with fits of fragile hope and dry humour, while the leads brew a worn-in, complex chemistry that turns on a dime between naked irritation and masked affection. Linney’s own punt at golden glory is like a greatest hits of all the highly strung, brittle women she’s acted in the past – familiar but still formidable. No commentary, alas, but then what can she and Hoffman tell us about the subtleties of playing tragi-comedy that isn’t already onscreen?