Let’s look, if we must, at the posters. Not that one should judge or evaluate a film in this manner, but a one-sheet, commissioned to aptly represent a movie’s spirit and tone, will also, in retrospect, say a lot about the spirit and tone of the era from which it comes. The poster for Tamara Jenkins’s The Savages looked familiar upon its release in 2007: it was designed by comic-book artist Chris Ware, known for beautifully static, melancholy cartoons of doughy-faced, moist-eyed personae with all the flexibility of Charles M. Schulz figures. The act of using this particular style to represent the essence of a film like The Savages undoubtedly constitutes a form of branding. The Savages is a film about two physically if not emotionally grown siblings, played by Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, forced to take care of their bitter pill of a father, now aged and wracked with dementia. Its tone is practiced wryness, its visuals as plain and sullen as a shy teenager. There are genuine moments of empathy peeking through its slightly cracked self-protective shell of distancing irony. Like so many American mini-major-studio indies from the past decade or so—a broad category, admittedly—there’s a built-in glibness to its direction and an emphatic formalism that dilutes its knottier issues. Which is all to say that Ware was indeed perhaps the right choice to illustrate the film: his illustrations are a known entity, providing an immediate flash of recognition of cartoonish melancholy. The Savages, a film ostensibly about messy people with messy problems but which finally only tries to assuage, came, appropriately, perfectly prepackaged.
Frigid parents and their scornful offspring, both dealing with the pain of getting older yet lacking empathy for each other’s separate experiences, all of them facing the specter of disease—there’s no way this stuff should feel clean. Yet for films as wannabe unfiltered as The Savages or as traditionally, unabashedly sentimental as 1981’s On Golden Pond, directed by Mark Rydell, the problem remains stubbornly the same, and it’s not just the nagging necessity of closure, but the dramaturgy itself, the way in which a lifetime of resentment has to be boiled down to a time-contained narrative and a few choice scenes, whether those scenes are intended to be redemptive or despairing, conciliatory or complicating.
Read the rest of Michael Koresky’s entry in Reverse Shot’s Stuck in the Middle symposium.