In "The Savages," writer-director Tamara Jenkins tackles a subject everybody deals with and filmmakers tend to shy away from: that painful role reversal when a child has to become an aging parent's parent. As anyone who saw her refreshing 1998 "Slums of Beverly Hills" knows, she brings a quirky honesty and a clear-eyed wit to the table. There's nothing mawkish about "The Savages": Jenkins's sweet and tart sensibility is located halfway between the compassionate satire of an Alexander Payne and the comic sang-froid of a Todd Solondz.
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney are the semi-estranged siblings Jon and Wendy Savage, whose father (Philip Bosco)—a difficult, irascible dad to begin with—is descending into dementia. He'd been living with his partner in Sun City, but when she dies his kids have to figure out what to do with him. They are not well equipped for the job, having enough trouble navigating their own floundering, self-absorbed lives. Wendy is a failed playwright in New York, surviving on temp jobs and unhappily conducting an affair with a married man (Peter Friedman). Jon's a professor in Buffalo, struggling to finish a book on Brecht and unable to commit to his Polish girlfriend. Thrown together by the crisis—which each deals with in radically different ways, her desperate, shaky optimism bouncing off his emotional detachment—they're forced to deal with their own arrested adolescence, as well as their father's looming death.
It sounds grimmer than it plays, thanks to Jenkins's sardonic, deadpan humor and the superb cast, who invest these damaged characters with rich, flawed, hilarious humanity. This bittersweet X-ray of American family dynamics may not be a Hallmark-card notion of a holiday movie, but it's one any son or daughter can take to heart.