Dir. Tamara Jenkins
Premiered at Sundance January 19, 2007
This retrospective has given me plenty of opportunities to bash the Mediocre Prestige Film. This time I get to talk about its distant cousin, the Dour Indie Dramedy. It’s similar to Oscar Bait, but instead of self-important grasps at relevance and big soliloquies, it has low production values, unfocused middle-class angst, awkward attempts at “quirky” comedy, unappealing nude scenes, a soundtrack that’s 90% glockenspiel, and forced, peripheral attempts to appear literate, and will guarantee you leave the theater unhappy. I’m pretty sure my mother has seen every one of these films.
Dour Indie Dramedies were something of a dying breed in 2007– Rocket Science and August’s Margot at the Wedding are the only others I can think of, but only in The Savages do we get the full package, as it contains all the aforementioned stereotypical traits, plus main characters who are writers, because of course they are.
I should mention that there’s nothing technically wrong with this movie. The titular Savages, aspiring playwright Wendy (Laura Linney) and theatre professor John (Philip Seymour Hoffman), hear news that their estranged and abusive father Lenny (Philip Bosco) has recently lost his live-in girlfriend and is suffering from dementia. After retrieving Lenny from Arizona and placing him in a nursing home near John’s college in Buffalo, Wendy and John decide to stay together until the New Year, in the hope that their mutual encouragement will get John to finish his book on Bertolt Brecht and Wendy can finish writing a play based on their childhood.
But that’s it. John is blunt and Wendy is self-absorbed, and they get along until they don’t. The performances are good. It’s just uninteresting and uncinematic and depressing. The Savages actually got rave reviews and a couple of Oscar noms, but there are a thousand movies just like this one, and I don’t need to see any more.
Signs This Was Made in 2007
9/11 is invoked. Analogies are made to the short-lived color-coded terror alert system. “We’re in yellow right now, so we should just be aware.” Wendy watches an Oxi-Clean commercial. John and Wendy engage in meaningful abuse of prescription painkillers and antidepressants.
There’s a scene where Lenny holds a screening of The Jazz Singer. For some reason, Lenny starts thinking the movie is about him. Much weirder to me is that college-educated intellectuals John and Wendy are surprised by the appearance of blackface at the end. Isn’t one of you a professor of theatre?
Another weird thing: everyone in this movie, set and filmed in 2007, apparently owns an ancient 1980s-model tube TV set.
How Did It Do?
The Savages only made $9.6 million against a $9 million budget. Dour Indie Dramedies had rarely been financially successful, but continued to be made basically because they were easy to write and cheap to produce, Sundance judges loved them, and with enough talent, you could get some awards buzz– as The Savages did, earning an 89% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, making multiple end-of-year top ten lists, and netting Oscar Nominations for Best Actress (Laura Linney) and Best Original Screenplay. But the writing was on the wall for this subgenre, and Tamara Jenkins notably never wrote or directed a film again.
Next Time: Teeth