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When the father they haven't seen for years is diagnosed with vascular dementia, Wendy wistfully asks her brother Jon, "Maybe Dad didn't abandon us, maybe he just forgot who we were?"

On the subject of family, Wendy still has illusions. When she and Jon become caregivers for the father who didn't care much for them, she hopefully asks her sibling if the place he has found for Dad is "nice."

Jon has no illusions. "It has an empty bed, it takes Medicaid, and it's close to my house," he replies.

The irony is not lost on them that despite the charmlessness of the Valley View nursing home, they take better care of their father than he did of them.

Like the Darling children in Peter Pan, their names are Wendy and Jon. Also like the Darlings, they have been stranded in an arrested-development Neverland. Unlike them, here the surname is Savage.

The Savages, Tamara Jenkins' mordant, poignant family portrait of adult children and their geriatric parents, navigates the rough waters of that middle passage when it's sink or swim time. It redefines "midlife crisis" as a period during which parents are lost and perspective is found.

Superbly acted by Laura Linney as Wendy, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Jon, and Philip Bosco as their fading father, The Savages is a movie of absurdist humor, brutal realism and dementia.

Put them together, as Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills) does, and the result is a deadpan inspirational. Where Slums was a coming-of-age comedy, Savages is a coming-of-middle-age tragicomedy. Its astringent humor is not funny ha-ha, it's funny-ouch.

Jon is the cerebral one, a theater professor in Buffalo and a specialist in the works of Bertolt Brecht. Wendy is the emotional one, an office temp and aspiring playwright in Manhattan. In theater, Jon finds the structure and Wendy the understanding denied them by absentee parents.

The implication of the subtle scenario that indicates rather than spelling everything out is that due to their unsettled upbringing, neither has settled down.

Jon won't commit to his girlfriend, a comparative-literature student from Krakow. Wendy's sometime guy is married and lives downstairs from her East Village flat.

As they contemplate the choices before them, Jon bares uncomfortable truths while Wendy embroiders them with comforting (sometimes self-pitying or -aggrandizing) lies.

The wonder of Hoffman and Linney's performances is in how their characters manage, mindful that the person who didn't give them the tools to handle life is the person they must manage. As Wendy overflows with emotion, Jon recedes into logic, and their terror is palpable. Will they, too, end up alone like Lenny, but without children to stroke their arthritic hand?

Jenkins' film moves anxiously from the glare of a Sun City, Ariz., retirement community to the gloom of the Buffalo, N.Y., nursing home. When it finally rests, it is at a place where anger transfigures into art and where the winter of discontent thaws into the spring of renewal.

The Savages, director Tamara Jenkins' portrait of siblings who are brought together to care for a father who didn't take good care of them, opens today. At a recent screening of the movie, Inquirer movie critic Carrie Rickey hosted a Q&A with Jenkins. To hear part of that conversation go to http://go.philly.com/jenkins. EndText

The Savages ***1/2 (out of four stars)

Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins. With Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Bosco and Gbenga Akinnagbe. Distributed by Fox Searchlight.

Running time: 1 hour, 53 mins.

Parent's guide: R (profanity, sexual candor)

Playing at: Ritz Five and Showcase at the Ritz Center/NJEndText

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey ay 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/