This is a New Yorker movie. By that, I mean a movie made by, for and about readers of The New Yorker. In Britain this demographic might also be referred to as Guardian readers. I speak of a mostly white, well-educated, pretentious, liberal sub-class of people; the kind of folk who know what focaccia bread looks like; who Elizabeth Bishop is, and when to use “farther” instead of “further”. Yes, such people are often referred to as “assholes” by non-New Yorker readers, but they (we?) mean no harm. Like the fractious siblings of The Savages, New Yorker readers are far too busy fretting over their next thesis to be the subject of big movies. No-one expects New Yorker pics, unlike Iron Man, Pirates, Jurassic Park, etc, to take over the world.
John and Wendy Savage (named – perhaps not by accident – after the John and Wendy who flew off to Neverland with Peter Pan) are your standard issue New Yorker movie-dysfunctional siblings. They are both skirting forty, unmarried, unhappy, smart but professionally unfulfilled, perpetually nervous but too proud to admit it, as incapable of not correcting others as they are of righting themselves, and, to sum up: children. Their father, Lenny Savage, was a cruel man who raised his kids to fear him and who is now in need of their help. Lenny has succumbed to Parkinson’s disease in old age, and it falls to John and Wendy to look after him. Fantastically reluctant as they are, the time has come to take act like grown ups.
Laura Linney (who plays Wendy Savage) is the patron saint of New Yorker movies. Even when she isn’t in them, even when it’s her slightly less good looking stand-in, Hope Davis – Laura’s presence is felt. With her anxious smile, her hard, kind eyes (that look that she perfected in You Can Count on Me; a little like “I understand you” with the emphasis on “But…”), she’s like every forty-something high school teacher you ever had a crush on; the one you knew was twenty years too old for you, but still, in the hazy sweat of a June Chemistry lesson…you kidded yourself. Linney’s appeal is the same as Meryl Streep’s; she’s smart but she doesn’t come off superior, she can act but still look good in a dress. Her character in The Savages needs be needy, but not brink-of-collapse needy (not under-30 needy). She’s someone who, while her boyfriend busies himself having sex with her, reaches out to touch his pet dog’s paw… the sort of woman who might not place a lonely hearts ad, but who doesn’t laugh at one either.
Philip Seymour Hoffman (still hoovering-up every leading man role in indie cinema after his Oscar nod) plays John Savage the way he plays most roles: like a bully with hurt feelings. Hoffman is brilliant at playing vulnerable assholes; men who attack the world preemptively. If he were thinner this might come off as unfounded, but there’s something in his contrast of highly developed intelligence and lardy physique that makes his stance appropriate. His bulk gives his anger backing too, in a way a scrawny guy with that much resentment might struggle to effectively replicate. If Linney is the Science teacher every boy had a crush on, Hoffman is the teacher who complains most in the staffroom. Liking him is tricky, but The Savages (like Capote) gives him reason to behave the way he does. I liked the scene where he cried over the eggs his girlfriend made him. It’s a small scene, but it tells a lot about a guy who thinks of betrayal every time he thinks of love.
Watching Blade II the other night, I thought about how different New Yorker movies would be if a character like Blade (or anyone with a gun) showed up in them. There’d be a lot more explosions for one thing, markedly fewer references to Heidegger… Probably Laura Linney would be replaced by Jessica Biel. It wouldn’t work, of course; anymore than introducing a character like Wendy Savage to Blade II. New Yorker movies are as much a genre as action-adventure, like it or not. They have their set rules, their familiar faces. Some of these movies are great, but mostly, as with action movies, the best ones were made some time ago. The Savages isn’t Manhattan, but it upholds the tradition of Manhattan and Annie Hall.