You might not regard the end-of-life warehousing of the aged and the infirm as a gold mine for movie material, but 2007 says otherwise.
"Away From Her" turned the situation into an improbably moving love story, and now "The Savages" spins it, just as improbably, into something like a comedy.
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney star as Jon and Wendy Savage, damaged survivors of abused childhoods suddenly obliged to find care for the father (Philip Bosco) who mistreated them.
Director Tamara Jenkins establishes the movie's oddball comic tone in early scenes depicting the father's eerily ordered, sun-blasted retirement community in Arizona, where real estate vultures circle over the ranch homes of folks no longer capable of taking care of themselves, or of paying for their own care.
One of the odd men out is Jon and Wendy's ornery, sometimes lucid dad (Bosco), whose advancing dementia now requires constant medical care. When he's hospitalized (and evicted), his children are summoned from the snowy Northeast to come fetch him. Their task is to figure out where to put a man who, in flickering moments of lucidity, treats them with indifference or contempt.
Director Jenkins handles this tricky material with tact and a nuanced touch - there are laughs, but the circumstance is real enough to resonate with anyone who's experienced the confusion, guilt, and disorientation that such a circumstance imposes.
For these two, it's amplified. She's a failed Mannhattan playwright, he's an unpublished academic in Buffalo - both are single. Their arrested professional and personal development are presented as lingering symptoms of their troubled childhoods.
The plot takes the family back to Buffalo, where Jon and Wendy bicker over where to put dad. Much of what makes "The Savages" work is the way Hoffman and Linney squabble so convincingly. Theirs are the fights of lifelong adversaries, of opponents who know the location of unhealed wounds.
Of course they're both smart, and have been exposed to enough therapy and classic Greek to understand the nature of their sibling battles. In the movie's best moments, they wordlessly convey truce, understanding, fatigue, love. It's first-rate acting.
Like "Away From Her," Jenkins' movie is generous in its depiction of the hospice environment, with small, sympathetic portraits of the employees assigned these difficult jobs.
It's more proof the movie has a good heart, maybe too much of one. The conclusion leans toward the pat, with the chronically dysfunctional Savages almost magically repaired.
But I'm not grinch enough to say it bothered me all that much. *