Civilization makes a comeback in The Savages

There’s comedy, there’s tragedy and there’s tragicomedy. Somebody needs to coin a new word to describe what it is that filmmaker Tamara Jenkins does so skillfully.

If you haven’t seen her semi-autobiographical 1998 debut, “Slums of Beverly Hills,” with Alan Arkin playing an irascible Jewish hustler raising three kids (including a busty teenage daughter) on his own on the downside of L.A., you have a treat in store.

It took almost a decade for Jenkins to challenge the sophomore jinx, but from a moviegoer’s perspective it was more than worth it. “The Savages,” a piercing and funny tale of adult siblings jarred out of their lives by the sudden responsibility of caring for their elderly, estranged father, is one of the strongest — and least self-indulgent — movies of the year.

It opens Friday, Dec. 14.

With theater vet Philip Bosco playing Lenny Savage and Laura Linney as his neurotic Manhattan daughter, the film has a distinctly Jewish flavor. The inclusion of a scene from “The Jazz Singer,” featuring a Jewish immigrant’s view of New York, confirms the accent.

But that Jewish sensibility doesn’t extend to Wendy’s brother Jon, a professor played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. That suits Jenkins, who is half-Jewish and half-Italian, just fine.

“There was no intentional profile, but they’re a very specific kind of family and a certain style of people,” says the dark-haired, fast-talking writer-director. “In some way it feels more like New York, or more East Coast-y to me, than necessarily Jewish. But I felt that Bosco was Jewish and that the mother [whom we never meet] wasn’t. That was sort of in my brain. I come from a very muddy background of half-this and half-that, and nothing was celebrated and everything was celebrated and it was just kind of a mush. And I sort of felt that [the Savage family] was mushy that way.”

Jenkins offers this back-story because we learn hardly anything about Wendy and Jon’s childhood in the course of the movie. The viewer is encouraged to imagine how the siblings turned out us so dissimilar.

“One of the things I was interested in,” says Jenkins, “was these two people that grew up in the exact same circumstances, but the way that they responded to their environment and their adaptation to the world, they have totally different techniques of survival.”

Jenkins, who lives in Manhattan’s East Village with her husband, “Sideways” producer Jim Taylor, is the proverbial live wire. Ensconced in a San Francisco hotel suite for a press day, she’s vibrant, boisterous and maybe just a touch neurotic.

She’s also very clear about what she was trying to achieve, in her screenplay and onscreen.

“One of the things that was very important to me with this movie is that without providing exposition, without giving the audience, ‘OK, this is what happened [when Jon and Wendy were children] and this is how they became who they are,’ you intuit it based on the behavior that is happening in the room. To me, that’s a goal, as a writer. It’s all between the lines, it’s all subtext and it’s all happening live.”

The heart of the movie consists of Wendy and Jon’s on-the-fly efforts to care for their father, and the ways in which his situation threatens to derail their already messy lives.

“They’re just doggie-paddling and trying to figure it out as it’s happening, and that’s what the story is,” Jenkins says. “Usually, inside of these big episodes there’s so much human flailing and so many comic errors and enormous humor mushed in there.”

By all means, let’s not overlook all the laughs strewn throughout “The Savages.” To Jenkins, comedy and the Jewish experience are inseparable.

“Humor comes from the underbelly of suffering. It’s the flip side of it. It has to do with acknowledging imperfection.”

So does Jenkins have any doubt about which branch of her family bequeathed her sense of humor?

“I think it’s definitely on the Jewish side,” she says with a laugh. “The great comedians aren’t Italian.”

“The Savages” opens Dec. 14 at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.