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Father's Keepers 

Few of us will be lucky enough to escape some variation of the duty: caring for a disabled loved one in the last stages of life. My wife Joyce and I have already been through it with three of our parents. Her dad was in and out of the hospital repeatedly in his last year of a long battle against cancer. Her mom was paralyzed and confined to a nursing home for 18 months after a devastating stroke. My father declined steadily for a year after a heart attack left him mentally as well as physically disabled. Such situations are of the kind addressed in writer/director Tamara Jenkins' wise, gentle and surprisingly sunny of spirit The Savages. Arriving with Oscar nominations for Jenkins' original screenplay and Laura Linney's lead performance, The Savages is the story of a thirtysomething brother and sister who have to care for an ailing father from whom they have been estranged for many years. Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) was a cold and sometimes abusive parent. He divorced the mother of his children long ago and has been living with an affluent girlfriend for two decades while maintaining very little contact with his kids. But he is already suffering from dementia when his girlfriend dies, and now the children are going to have to take charge of what happens to him next. They are not without resentment about the burden of responsibility for which they have not planned, but they respond to his needs with greater attention and kindness than he deserves.

All in all, given the nature of their rearing " the Savages' mother was even more neglectful than their father " Lenny's children have fared better than we might expect. Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a comparative literature professor. Jon's sister Wendy (Linney) supports herself as a temporary office worker, but she's an aspiring writer with enough resolve to complete work and aggressively seek grant support. Jon and Wendy obviously have not escaped their childhoods unscathed, however. Both have commitment problems. Wendy lives alone with her cat and conducts an unbecoming sexual affair with a married man. Jon refuses to marry his longtime Polish girlfriend Kasia (Cara Seymour) even though he's obviously in love with her and without an American husband she will have to leave the country. Moreover, Jon and Wendy aren't always able to tamp down their sibling rivalry. He thinks she's neurotic, she thinks he's condescending, and they're both right.

Not everything works. Wendy doesn't seem desperate enough to be involved with Larry (Peter Friedman), who is both terribly unattractive physically and otherwise unappealing. Though he pretends to be concerned about her, he could hardly make it more obvious that he's only interested in her for the sex. And since Wendy doesn't even like the sex, it is utterly unclear why she always lets Larry in. I also remained a little unconvinced about Wendy's worries that the nursing home she and Jon find for Lenny isn't nice enough. Yes, guilt is a typical reaction that children have about their parents, but it seems more likely to arise from children who have been loved, not ignored. Wendy's desire to find Lenny a plusher residence provides narrative conflict with Jon to fill some sequences in the film's center, but they are executed without much conviction.

Most of the picture, though, succeeds handsomely. The relationship between Jon and Wendy is handled with admirable skill. They have been through the war of their childhood together, and it has forged a bond between them. Portrayed by two of America's best contemporary actors, Wendy and Jon are completely convincing as brother and sister. They don't always like each other, but they clearly love each other. Though the subject matter is sober, Jenkins manages to keep it from becoming heavy, even finding ways to interject moments of humor without disturbing the film's overall tone.

In short, there are several good reasons to see this film, but Linney's performance is reason enough in itself. She is so gifted with her face and eyes. Often the script calls on her to convey her thoughts without speaking, and she's splendid at it. In a late scene where Jon reveals he's going to a conference where he will probably see Kasia, Wendy doesn't say a word but her eyes tell her brother to listen to his heart. My heart still belongs to Julie Christie in this year's Oscar race, but let me be loud among the chorus of admirers for Linney's performance. Bravo.

click to enlarge Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy (Laura Linney) try to find a home for their ailing father in The Savages. - 2007 FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES


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