Thursday, January 24, 2008

That could be me.

Another movie review, with a different addendum.

The Savages (***1/2)
After watching Away From Her this year, Sarah Polley's understated and mature directorial debut, it seems hard to see a film that tackles a similar subject in a markedly different way, but with equal understanding of the subject at hand. That subject is aging, death, and losing someone to Alzheimers. It's a tough subject to swallow, and Polley's approach marches straightforwardly and gracefully into the pain. Tamara Jenkins (who I met at Swarthmore at some point, I realized when I saw he name) takes the more comic approach, which in some ways is the more honestly dishonest way that many of us would approach the subject. To be fair, it plays upon a number of the disfunctional family comedy traits that have oversaturated the market, but like the successful ones (Juno, for instance), it works in large part to the cast. Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffmann give two oustandingly nuanced and careful performances as a sister and brother who work surprisingly well together. She is controlling and anxious, struggling to get her arms around her own life, while Hoffman's character is yet another study in nuanced, evasive emotions. What sold me on the film is how carefully Jenkins seems to have written these characters, and how familiar they felt. In one scene, the man who has an affair with her tries to entice her with a filmic reference, only to have Linney correct him decisively and thoroughly. Before she did that, so did I in my mind. Hoffman is a college professor, one who buries himself in his work, seriously and rather joylessly. It's such a sharp portrayal of a man who catalogs his feelings away with as much caution as he shuffles piles of books. That could be me too, I thought, watching him know where every book went and then baffle as to what to do with an empty bowl, only to just set it back down. The film is a tragic one, yes, one that doesn't shy away from the pain and most of all the guilt, but finds the moments of humor, none more savagely funny than a movie night where they show The Jazz Singer, only to agonizingly bid good night to an all-black staff who clearly were put off by the final scene. The movie has its flaws--the ending is betrayingly sappy, the characters and situations occasionally lapse into awkwardly placed cliches, and the score is among the worst I've heard and ineptly wanders in and out like one of the nursing home patients, unaware of the surroundings (the song that rolls over the credits is spectacularly inappopriate to the mood)--but the film is so often pitch-perfect in both its humor and seriousness, the delicate balance is barely disturbed by them.

As I go through grad school, I'm becoming more and more aware of these depictions of professorial life, and this movie does it so well. I loved The Squid and the Whale, and the whole discomfort of watching failed liberal academics try to hold on to what they could (the connections between these films isn't just Laura Linney, although she's excellent in similar ways in both). And I loved both the book and movie of Wonder Boys. But what's different here is that Hoffmann's character isn't exactly failing. He's managing. A book is underway, he's teaching. But the details- the office, the house, how he goes about clearing the materials off the couch is also so meticulous that it felt very familiar to my own love of lists, systems, planning, and, well, avoidance of the actual writing. Nothing else really sticks for him--his girlfriend, his family, it's all tenuously attended to with whatever energy he has left over, and I wonder how true that will be for me. Also, that Jazz Singer scene was hilarious for all the right reasons. And we're talking squirmingly uncomfortable hilarious, made all the more by Hoffmann's comment directly following the incident. We've all had those moments in our classes or interactions, and this movie nails it.


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