Given the subject matter — caring for an aging parent — The Savages is damn funny, as long as you don’t mind laughs that stick in your throat. The gifted Tamara Jenkins, making her first film since her potent 1998 debut with Slums of Beverly Hills, brews a volatile cocktail of mirth and melancholy. Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his sister Wendy (Laura Linney) have first names out of Peter Pan, but their life is no fairy tale. Wendy is a struggling playwright doing odd jobs in Manhattan and diddling a married man (Peter Friedman), though she has more affection for his dog. Jon is a college professor in Buffalo, writing books on Brecht and alienating his Polish girlfriend (Cara Seymour) by refusing to extend her visa by marrying her.
The rain that falls into the lives of these two drama geeks is Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco), the father who neglected them as kids and now needs all their attention, what with dementia knocking. Jenkins and her three astonishing actors create comic devastation out of situations as serious as a mental meltdown and picking out just the right nursing home. There is nothing cozy about The Savages. Bosco, a theater legend, seizes his juiciest film role and makes every shocking moment count. And Linney is an amazement, showing vulnerability and strength at war for a character’s soul. As for Hoffman, is this his year, or what? He’s electric in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and the upcoming Charlie Wilson’s War, but what he does here — hanging from a neck brace or crying over his eggs — leaves you in awe. With the help of acting giants, Jenkins turns The Savages into a twisted, bittersweet pleasure.