"What do we do with Dad?" Questions like that are common to nearly every grown-up child at some point, when ailing parents can no longer take care of themselves and need some sort of intervention. And yet it's the third rail of American movies, perhaps because it's a sore subject for those who, for whatever reason—their jobs, their own families, the distance, or some combination of the three—can't give their parents the care they'd like. In her sure-footed comedy The Savages, writer-director Tamara Jenkins connects with this guilt and shame in a totally disarming way, though without glossing over the difficulties of watching a parent slowly recede from view. In this case, the parent is an irascible crank who abandoned his children, but that doesn't make things any easier, or absolve them from having to do right by him.
As a sibling duo, Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman have a dynamic like Linney's with Mark Ruffalo in You Can Count On Me, at least in the sense that she's more together and responsible than her brother, though emotionally brittle in her own way. Both are single and creeping toward middle age with nothing in their lives settled: Linney is an aspiring New York playwright who's carrying on a grim affair with a married man, while Hoffman is a Buffalo theater professor who's missed his latest deadline on a Bertolt Brecht book that no one's dying to read. The two have their demented father Philip Bosco safely tucked away in Arizona, but when Bosco's wife dies and he's subsequently booted from a retirement community, it's up to them to take care of him.
It's been nine years since Jenkins' fine debut feature, Slums Of Beverly Hills, but she picks up nicely where she left off, again drawing on semi-autobiographical material to mine funny, exacting observations about a family in crisis. The frequent outbursts of comedy help alleviate a tone that's appropriately muted and sad, and Jenkins should be credited for refusing to tack smiley-faces onto a tough, possibly lose-lose situation. In other movies, when grown children take care of their estranged parents, it's usually a recipe for life lessons and sentimental reconciliations, but here, the father isn't any warmer than the man who mistreated his kids in their youth. It's up to those kids to take the high road, and The Savages charts their struggle with a humor and honesty that goes down surprisingly easy.