The Savages offering an honest family portrait of life and death

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Though it's not possible to make a feel-good movie about death - at least one that's in good taste - The Savages comes awfully close to that paradoxical equation thanks to director-writer Tamara Jenkins's uncanny talent for finding just the right antidote to maudlin sentimentality.

Though it's not possible to make a feel-good movie about death - at least one that's in good taste - The Savages comes awfully close to that paradoxical equation thanks to director-writer Tamara Jenkins's uncanny talent for finding just the right antidote to maudlin sentimentality.

It's called divine comedy, and though it was originally conceived by 14th century Italian poet Dante as a means of exploring the human condition in a populist way, Jenkins finds success through similar channels as she chronicles the angst, depression and fear surrounding the mental and physical disintegration of an aging parent.

Without pandering to cheap yuks or preying upon easily understood and sappy universal truths about love and meaning, Jenkins pushes us into the chapter of life we've all learned to dread since childhood: Watching our parents die.

When we meet Wendy (Laura Linney) and Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman), they're happily lost in their own personal dramas. For Wendy, elusive happiness lies in the idea of writing plays with the support of the Guggenheim Foundation and leaving her job as an office temp behind.

For Jon, survival and sanity take precedence over happiness, because the 40-something college professor just waved goodbye to his girlfriend for no good reason at all - except a profound fear of commitment.

Though knee-deep in their own sagas, the two siblings find themselves in a whole new hot tub when they get news of their father's medical condition. A recent widower who just lost his meal ticket, Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) is now a man in need of a home and full-time care.

Though a little slow to appreciate the full scale of the situation, and their place in it, Wendy and Jon eventually feel the walls close in around them as they seek a sensible and sympathetic solution to their sudden crisis.

They're not rich enough to simply buy off their guilt with a first-class rest home, though we see Wendy try. Nor are they so cold they abandon him altogether. Wendy and Jon decide to do their very best by their father, even though it's clear both children faced serious trauma at his hands when he was young - the memories strong and lucid enough to abuse with purpose.

In the movie world, children are usually given an opportunity to vent their pent up anger at a dying father. The heightened emotions and opportunity for scenic catharsis is usually too much for a director to pass up, but Jenkins holds back and refuses the easy, crisp dramatic moment in favour of the malformed and messy human exchanges we experience daily.

When Jon and Wendy finally get their father into a home near Jon's in Buffalo, Wendy asks: "Does it smell?" Jenkins then gives Hoffman the whole screen to respond as Jon: "Of course it smells. They all smell."

The dialogue is hardly poetic, but in the brief exchange the reality of life's last chapter is laid bare: Aging is smelly, dehumanizing, unpleasant and consistently terminal. It's a fact of life our culture has worked hard to suppress, but no matter how hard one tries to gladhand the Grim Reaper or escape his grasp, he's always there - waiting ever so patiently in the wings.

Jenkins handles the hide and seek games of denial with so much forgiveness, even these flawed, fearful mortals find a place in our hearts, no matter how often they do or say things that seem completely inappropriate.

Linney's Wendy is a brilliant take on an unrealized woman in her late 30s waiting for life to begin, and Hoffman's crotchety professor could be pushy and irksome, if it weren't for the fact that he cries from a broken heart every morning and keeps his sister Wendy fastened to reality.

A delicate, and very tender portrayal of human foibles and the beauty of forgiveness, The Savages may not seem like a must-see of the season, but in the big - and small - picture, this little movie about real life and real death offers the right frame of reference on corny Yuletide sentiment.

Organizations: Guggenheim Foundation, Linney's

Geographic location: Buffalo

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