John and Wendy were the names of two of the children in “Peter Pan,” but this John and Wendy aren’t Darlings. They’re Savages.
Subtle name-based symbolism aside, “The Savages” is a sharply funny story about growing up, growing old, and getting over yourself. Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins (“Slums of Beverly Hills”), it presents a dilemma not often addressed in movies: How can you have a midlife crisis when you don’t have a life to begin with?
Wendy Savage (Laura Linney) and her brother John (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are both single, both close to 40 years old, and both playwrights. The difference is that John is a theater professor at a Buffalo, N.Y., college, while Wendy works temp jobs in Manhattan and applies for one playwright fellowship after another. John has a longtime girlfriend (Cara Seymour) whom he has avoided marrying; Wendy sleeps with a married man (Peter Friedman) who lives in her building. The Savage siblings, as you can see, are going nowhere.
Their lives are jump-started when their father (Philip Bosco) starts to lose his mind. He’s been living with a widow in Sun City, Ariz., for years and has had very little contact with his children, but when he starts writing on the walls with his own poop, the home-health nurse figures it’s time to involve the family. Dad needs to move into a nursing home, or something, and Wendy and John must figure out what to do.
Linney and Hoffman both excel at playing rumpled, dowdy, unfortunate adults, and their chemistry as sister and brother is completely believable. Both well-educated (maybe overmuch so), John and Wendy can reference literature in their arguments, yet can be petty and stubborn, too. They can also express hilarious exasperation with one another with just a glance, exactly the way real siblings can.
Jenkins achieves some real poignance, too, as her characters face the imminent death of their father. (Their mother has never been in the picture.) It’s trite to say that their father’s decline is a wake-up call about their own mortality, but that’s what it is. Dad’s life is almost over; what have we done with ours?
The dismal New York winter during which the film is set and the story’s heady themes of aging and death give the film a melancholy undertone. I think you’ll remember the laughs most, though — smartly written, perfectly delivered dialogue, accompanied by a sunny, hopeful ending. Forty-year-old slackers dealing with their parents are common in independent films, but Linney and Hoffman (and Jenkins’ sharp screenplay) make this one memorable.
B+ (1 hr., 53 min.; )