'The Savages' Captures Realities of a Family Crisis



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The Savages, with its depiction of family members dealing with their ailing father, hit close to home for NPR film critic Bob Mondello. Movies are emotionally effective, Mondello says, because they come so close to the truth.

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The subject of that film - moving an aging parent into a nursing home - is one many audiences will find familiar.

That's the case for our critic, Bob Mondello.

BOB MONDELLO: Movies have to echo life or you'd never believe a moment of what happens on the screen. But most of the time, the echoes are distant. Bruce Willis dislocates his shoulder while flying his car into a helicopter, and sure, I feel his pain but at a certain remove.

"The Savages," on the other hand, when Jon and Wendy Savage go to the hospital and find their dad confused and strapped to his bed because he's been getting up and driving the nurses crazy, I've been there. Got the T-shirt, still can't shake that soundtrack.

(Soundbite of movie "The Savages")

Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN (Actor): (As Jon Savage) Hi, dad.

Ms. LAURA LINNEY (Actor): (As Wendy Savage) Hi, dad. How are you?

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon) How are you?

Mr. PHILIP BOSCO (Actor): (As Lenny Savage) Shouldn't have me confined for two days.

Ms. LINNEY: (As Wendy) Well, we got here as soon as we could. We came straight from the airport. It's Jon and Wendy.

Mr. BOSCO: (As Lenny) I know who you are, the late ones. You're late. You are here and this is what they do.

MONDELLO: It was minutes in our case, not days, but it felt the same. And the why was in the next scene. The film's doctor offered a diagnosis and I knew it before he said it - Parkinson's, those tiny steps that actor Philip Bosco had been taking when he walked, the Parkinson's shuffle, just like my dad's.

Later moments rang just as true even when played for comedy - the nursing home search, the living will awkwardness, the confusions when you think you're all on the same page, and suddenly you're not.

(Soundbite of movie "The Savages")

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon) Once you're in a coma…

Ms. LINNEY: (As Wendy) Jon…

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon) …would you want a breathing machine to keep you alive?

Mr. BOSCO: (As Lenny) What kind of question is that?

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon) It's a question we should know in case.

Mr. BOSCO: (As Lenny) In case what?

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon) It's this procedure, something they want for the record.

Mr. BOSCO: (As Lenny) Who?

Ms. LINNEY: (As Wendy) The people who run the place, the Valley View.

Mr. BOSCO: (As Lenny) What the hell kind of hotel is it?

MONDELLO: Dad talked about the hotel, too. Now, some of this is just recognition. And as a movie critic, I've mostly learned to get past that. I take notes, remember that stories are universal, basically take a step back. Sometimes, it's not easy. You try watching "The Princess Bride" three days after falling in love or seeing the Tom Hanks dog movie "Turner & Hooch" a week after getting a puppy. Critical faculties I thought were hardwired suddenly short-circuited. And I just wanted to scratch that mutt's ears and (unintelligible).

"The Savages" is a little different, though, more fraught even played as comedy, with moments that I figured would be painful. But I found myself admiring how right the film kept getting things. And at a previous showing where the audience talked afterwards, I wasn't alone. During the discussion, lots of people told stories virtually matching those in the film. And to a person, what had grabbed them was that they saw truth up there on the screen.

In an era of special effects and fantasy, that may sound counterintuitive. But truth is really film's great strength, always has been. For centuries, the stage had approximated life. But when film came along, the miracle for audiences was that those flickering shadows weren't approximations. They were reality captured and somehow heightened in the capturing. Our great-grandparents would never have gone to a stage show to see someone sneeze, especially given the influenza pandemics that killed millions in the 1800s.

But that bit of personal baggage didn't get in the way in 1894, when Thomas Edison captured a sneeze on a film strip and showed it as a five-second attraction that was among the first motion pictures ever created. No plots, nothing but the truth of real experience. And it was an instant smash, so popular in fact he had to copyright it.

I'm Bob Mondello.

BLOCK: You can see clips from "The Savages" and hear Laura Linney talk about her dark days as an acting student as well as a critical lesson she learned from Clint Eastwood at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.