First, let's talk about what works: Jenkins exploits all of her skill at presenting ugly, normal people in her low-key movie, which follows two middle-aged losers (Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) as they put their abusive father (Phillip Bosco) into a nursing home.
I've only seen one other Jenkins movie, Slums of Beverly Hills, and while that movie was much lighter in tone, it also depicted a family of freeloading, lower-class losers. Her subjects in The Savages, while decidedly not lower-class, belong to a much weirder subset: upper-middle-class artists whose failures have pretty much made them lower-class. Linney's character is a struggling playwright who works as a temp; Hoffman's is a professor at a small university who can't finish his magnum opus.
Jenkins shoots her movie in a series of antiseptic hospital rooms, dingy motor lodges, and rumpled and ratty houses and apartments. Linney and Hoffman deliver a pair of low-octane performances that are refreshingly free of great act-ing, and the script forgoes any histrionic apologies or confessions of guilt from the abusive father. He dies randomly while his two kids are asleep. There's no super-dramatic death scene.
The movie also features a lot of the bleak humor Jenkins brought to Slums of Beverly Hills. Hoffman and Linney are such losers, that a simple shot of them watching TV (or of Linney doggedly doing aerobics to keep her loser ass in shape) are hilarious for some kookily depressing reason.
All in all, this is the kind of actor-friendly, low-budget indie sleeper that's great at pulling in Oscar nominations. So what's the problem?
Middle-class whining. That's the first hard-to-spot cliché that Jenkins weaves into her script. OK, don't get me wrong – writers should write what they know, but sometimes I get really sick of Hollywood writers who write about depressed middle-class losers who are depressingly depressed about their depressing – and perfectly fine – lives. It makes me feel embarrassed. I get embarrassed, for example, when I watch Six Feet Under, and Peter Krause's character – who has a beautiful wife and a cushy job – starts blubbering about how miserable his life is, and I'm supposed to feel bad for him. Ick.
But the middle-class whining in The Savages is far worse than Six Feet Under's because Linney's character is a writer, and at least twice in the script, she frets that the play she's working on is all about middle-class whining. See the problem here? Jenkins chooses to write about how stunted middle-aged children deal with death. Fine. But then she lazily chooses to explore this storyline through the prism of middle-class whining, and then she apologizes for it through one of her characters. That's another cliché you can only find in the deep programming of this script.
And we're not done yet. While waiting for her father to die at his nursing home, Linney steps outside to get some air. (If you can't see the next cliché coming, shame on you.) Sure enough, there's a male nurse out there who offers her a cigarette. She accepts, and they start talking.
That's clichéd enough as is, but it gets worse: The guy Linney confides in is black. During their conversation, Linney mentions that she's a playwright, and the nurse asks to read one of her plays. Linney frets that it's middle-class whining, but gives it to him anyway, and he reads it. Again, Linney frets that it's middle-class whining, but the nurse says he didn't think it was.
"I thought it was sad," he says. This nurse also offers Linney some spiritual and moral guidance toward the end of the movie.
This device – the noble black person who offers guidance to the white person – is one of the most insidious clichés in mainstream and indie movies today. Two of the more heinous examples of this are The Legend of Bagger Vance and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Wes Anderson has caught some flak for his dubious use of minority characters in his white-bread, upper-crust movies. It's upper-class white condescension of the lowest order.
Unfortunately, Jenkins falls into this same old trap, and her use of this device, along with other tough-to-spot clichés, sullies her otherwise solid movie.
Let me end with this admonition: If you want to write about middle-class whining, just do it. Don't apologize to the audience for it, and for fuck's sake, don't embarrass yourself and apologize to a minority character in your script for it.