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The Savages

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Verdict: Shrewd and unshowy family tragi-comedy with the best two American screen actors alive

Rating: * * * *

It's hard to believe that Linney and Hoffman, for my money the best American screen actors of their generation, haven't been cast together before now. It's been worth the wait. As Jon and Wendy Savage, long-estranged siblings reluctantly brought together to attend to the needs of their elderly father, they embody a defining malaise of the baby-boomer generation - what one of them calls "the guilty demographic" - they cannot bring themselves to desert the parents who inflicted on them what they remember as miserable childhoods.

Just what their father Lenny (Bosco) did wrong is never spelt out and it's possible his abuses are more imagined than real. But the incipiently senile Lenny we meet is less than charming. Remarried and living in Sun City, Arizona (the subject of a hilariously surreal opening sequence) he's started to draw on the walls - and he's not using crayons. His new family want his old family to take him back.

Jon, an academic in upstate New York who specialises in Brecht, and Manhattan-based Wendy, a wannabe playwright, have seen neither Lenny nor each other for years. And as the three of them work out the next stage in the elder's life, old wounds are opened and old wrongs are clumsily righted.

It sounds like one of those dark and heavy family dramas that have become a staple of American indie cinema but Jenkins is less pompous than, say, Noah Baumbach (the overrated The Squid and the Whale and the even worse Margot at the Wedding).

Rather than trace a remorselessly downward - or, worse, redemptively upward - arc, her shrewd, unshowy script reveals her characters in telling sequences that add up to a rueful, often touching, but more often funny tragicomedy.

One-liners deflate puffed-up expectations ("We're not in a Sam Shepard play," Jon says to Wendy as they head west) but equally she can distill the essence of a character into such throwaways (when Wendy is she's asked if she's married, she replies, with no sense of irony, "No, but my boyfriend is".)

The film loses some momentum in the third quarter, but Linney and Hoffman are superb, creating characters as open to us as they are closed off to themselves and each other. Jenkins knows when to let them talk but she knows when to shut them up, too. In one scene, while they argue in the car about who has been rejected for more Guggenheim fellowships, Lenny turns his hearing aid off and stares out the window as they pass a graveyard. It's a gentle, telling moment that allows us to see something the younger Savages don't: how much can be said with words left unspoken.

Peter Calder

Cast: Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Bosco

Director: Tamara Jenkins

Running time: 113 mins

Rating: M, low-level offensive language

Screening: Rialto

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