The Savages

Scarcely have we recovered from his obscene performance in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, when who should come galumphing along but Philip Seymour Hoffman, the single most unprepossessing and overrated actor of his generation, in yet another starring role where the camera pulls in tight to his doughy cheeks and multiple chins.

Hoffman first rose to prominence (if that’s the word) as nightmarishly oafish non-entities such as the fat, gay production assistant who smooched Marky Mark in Boogie Nights. Hoffman’s on-screen personae never varied much—his only real stretch was the jazz-saturated Freddie in The Talented Mr. Ripley—still, one could be grateful that his roles were minor. Then came his Elmer Fudd meets Carol Channing caricature in Capote, and with it Hoffman’s undeserved Oscar win for Best Actor. And now we have Hoffman front and center, his meager talent buoyed by publicity machines eager to assure us of his supposed greatness as an actor. But the reason he was handed an Oscar is this: He played the right kind of fag in Capote, a fey non-threatening heffalump that heterosexuals could safely deign to pity, whereas the infinitely more deserving and gifted Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain played the wrong kind of fag: a man too much like a man for comfort.

In The Savages, Hoffman stars as Jon, a bearded and burly drama professor who looks as if he rightly belongs in a truck stop. Writer-director Tamara Jenkins inherently grasps Hoffman as a cartoon, purveying him as a buffoonish “intellectual,” as befits the received wisdom engulfing the actor off-screen. Jon’s elderly, estranged father (Philip Bosco) has begun to show signs of dementia, thus Jon and his sibling Wendy (Laura Linney), a struggling playwright and stealer of office supplies from her temp jobs, squabble over the “correct” nursing home for dear old dad.

Linney, wearing a brown fright wig that resembles a Medusa with dead snakes, has been given a homely married lover who sports a comb-over, lest we miss the point that Wendy has low self-esteem. Alexander Payne executive produced this outing, and the Payne-ful touch is evident: condescension as a substitute for humor, cheap irony as a stunt double for insight. Jenkins, who writes pauses around her dialogue (she believes gales of laughter will accompany her deathless one-liners), doesn’t know whether she’s satirizing white liberal guilt or perpetuating it. She uses 1920s clips of Al Jolson in blackface during a movie-night sequence at the nursing home, cutting between shots of Nigerian staffers taking offense to The Jazz Singer and of the Savage siblings wincing in sensitivity.

Slicing through The Savages’ phoniness, Bosco screams at his children, in response to their eggshell-sticky questions on what to do after he dies, “BURY ME! WHADDYA, IDIOTS?” Better yet, there’s Gbenga Akinnagbe, splendid as a sexy caregiver whom Wendy not unaccountably falls for.

This review was originally published, in an alternate version, at Willamette Week.

November 21, 2007