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Photograph by Andrew Schwartz
PAIN IN THE NECK: Philip Seymour Hoffman's neck brace forces him to smile even when Laura Linney gets under his skin.

Sibling Meltdown

Sister Laura Linney and brother Philip Seymour Hoffman can't cope with Dad in 'The Savages'

By Richard von Busack

DIRECTOR Tamara Jenkins was working on a film about Diane Arbus, a project that mutated beyond recognition into Fur. The opening shots in The Savages, her first feature film since 1998's Slums of Beverly Hills, are of Sun City, Ariz., and she takes an Arbus-eyed view: elderly women in costumes emerge from the shrubbery and dance in formation; we see some slo-mo bobbing in a swimming pool for water aerobics.

Jenkins' camera cruises the empty streets at electric-golf-cart pace, scoping out the saguaros and tamarisks. None of us are getting any younger, and the vision of that kind of sun and leisure looks better than it's supposed to. But then The Savages begins in earnest, in one of these desert ranch houses. A battle of wills unfolds between a cranky home-care worker and a sour old man, Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco), who didn't flush the toilet as well as he should have. Lenny wins the battle but loses the war; after defiling the wall of his own bathroom, he's stricken with the first blow of some rapid and terrible senility.

Cut to New York to the wretched little apartment of playwright/temp worker Wendy Savage (Laura Linney). It is empty on this winter afternoon as her answering machine records word of her father's crisis. At work, Wendy is stealing company time and armfuls of office supplies. She is writing grant-request letters to philanthropists to get funds to finish her latest "subversive semiautobiographical play," which will blend Eugene O'Neill and Linda Barry.

Linney's Wendy has soft curls and some of the finest bones since Katharine Hepburn. She wears pajamalike woolens and long-underwear tops a lot and has the air of mischief. We frequently see her exercising, dancing to her workout tape, so we'll know she hasn't given up on things. Linney's aura of merriment breaks out throughout this evil comedy.

Wendy is imaginative enough to sham cervical trouble to get out of sex with her married lover, Larry (Peter Friedman), when she is overwhelmed with a temporary bout of Other Woman Fatigue. Yet she is not imaginative enough to get out of lying underneath Larry's thrusting bulk. Only after Larry leaves does she pick up the phone message about her father's breakdown. Frantic, Wendy calls her brother, Jon, in Buffalo. He is a fellow sad sack, and he is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, continuing the best year of his career. An academic, Jon is working on a paper on "Oedipal Rage in Brecht."

He is essentially some kind of shaved bear disturbed in midwinter hibernation, and he has his own personal problems. He is letting his Polish girlfriend slide out of his life without a fight. After conferring, the two siblings decide that their father's "toileting incident" can be temporarily ignored. It isn't ignored long. Shortly, Lenny is indigent, demented and homeless. The two haul the old man to Buffalo to get him a place in what my father refers to as "the home for the feebs."

Jenkins gives us plenty of remorse and spatting between the siblings about the old man. They have been out of touch with him for decades. Lacking an iceberg to put him out to sea on, Jon and Wendy place him in a home called Valley View, so called for its lack of a valley or of a view. The Savages often dispenses dirty straight-faced fun, like a geriatric Little Miss Sunshine. The brother and sister know just how to grate on each other. One sleepless night, Wendy sees on late-night TV an excerpt from the Laurel and Hardy film The Big Noise, in which Stan tortures "Mairzy Doats" out of a concertina as Oliver smolders. Hoffman and Linney are just that kind of a comedy act.

Jenkins also gives Hoffman some surprisingly cuddly scenes. When he is cradled in neck traction for a tennis injury, the pulleys make him smile whether he wants to or not. And he enjoys a dreamy drive around Buffalo under the influence of some stolen Percocets, listening to Lotte Lenya's "Solomon Song" from The Threepenny Opera.

Even after Jon's most violent Brechtian outburst—a speech about how the walls of old people's homes hide the blood and piss from passers-by—The Savages sweetens up relentlessly. One character moves out of the background into the foreground: Jimmy, Valley View's night nurse, is a sort of Magic Jamaican—a Caribbean version of the Magic Negro. Gbenga Akinnagbe is as good with this kind of gentle part as anyone could have been.

Since Akinnagbe plays a killer on The Wire, he seems eager here for a change, to be a dispenser of the milk of human kindness. One misses the kind of salt that turned up unexpectedly during the year's least-lauded supporting-actress performance, Kristen Thomson's nurse in Away From Her.

The finish lets you down. An overdone optimism betrays these character's tendencies to crash into things. That's a pity because much of it is incisive and endearing, and would be even more so if they didn't finish up, perched on the brink of healing.

Movie Times THE SAVAGES (R; 113 min.), directed and written by Tamara Jenkins, photographed by W. Mott Hupfel III and starring Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, plays at selected theaters.

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