Lenny Savage, the estranged father of adult siblings Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy Savage (Laura Linney), is not doing so well. His dementia is worsening all the time and his longtime wife (Jon and Wendy's step-mother) has recently passed away, so the brother and sister must retrieve him from his residence in Arizona and set him up in a nursing home closer to them, in New York. The thing is, Lenny was a pretty terrible father when his kids were growing up. Jon mentions at one point that just by going through the process of placing Lenny in a semi-respectable nursing home, they are taking better care of him than Lenny ever did them. But there is simply nobody else to handle these precise details, so Jon and Wendy take on the task.
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What ensues is a nuanced and sometimes darkly humorous depiction of the siblings flailing through their roles of dutiful children to a dying father. Wendy takes it more to heart, hyper-actively trying to make sure Lenny is comfortable in his new setting, buying him a lava lamp and losing her cool when she thinks one of the other residents has stolen his big red pillow from Urban Outfitters. Jon is more detached, feeling little warmth toward his father but still visiting the nursing home regularly out of vague obligation. Wendy temporarily moves in with Jon to make the sharing of responsibilities easier. As the weeks wear on, with brother and sister both bickering and leaning on each other for support, we see various aspects of their lives splinter and shift. And ultimately we see that the true bond is between Jon and Wendy who, through their imperfect tending of their father, reestablish that at a sad, long ago point in time they were all each other had. It's not so much a story about losing family, but gaining it back.
Best part of story, including ending:
The film refuses to fall into the narrative traps that one might expect. The fact that Jon and Wendy are not close to their father is liberating right from the start, in that this is not a film about grief. It's a film that examines what it's like to deal with a family member's deterioration without grief, without that emotional connection. There's still the discomfort and the paperwork and the stress and the time put in, but to what end? What does that do to a person? These aspects open up the story in a fascinating, distinctive way.
Even the interplay between Jon and Wendy is outside of static, traditional modes. Wendy is established early on as the fussy and motherly younger sister, the one who pesters Jon and tries to keep him responsible and in line. Yet she steals her deceased step-mother's pain pills and takes them frequently, eventually offering some to Jon as well. Jon is harsher than Wendy about the situation with Lenny, but also states outright to his sister: “Don't make me out to be the evil brother who's putting away our father against your will.” And he's absolutely right. It's not that simple. Both siblings are writers, educated, involved in the theatre, flaky in their romantic relationships. They're actually quite similar to each other, making their interactions and conflicts that much more subtle. It's gray bouncing off gray, not red clashing with green.
Best scene in story:
Returning to the nursing home after taking Lenny Christmas shopping, Jon and Wendy get into a fight over a Guggenheim Fellowship that she claims to have received. Jon accuses Wendy of lying about the whole thing because he saw a list of the winners and her name was not included. Wendy's admission of what really happened is funny and surprising and a great moment for both actors. Yet the whole sequence is also given a layer of uneasiness because Lenny is sitting sadly in the passenger seat of the car, ignored, with his hearing aid turned off to dull the sound of the argument. It's hard not to feel bad for him in that moment.
Opinion about the main character:
Wendy is a fun character to watch. Her nervous energy lends itself easily to the more comedic scenes, with all of her plans for helping Lenny that end up being far-fetched or her frantic aerobics sessions in her square little outfits. At the same time, both she and Jon have a wounded, melancholy part of them. Wendy has written a semi-autobiographical play about their childhood and at one point she lets one of the workers at the nursing home read it. She worries that it's too whiny, but the worker muses “Not at all. I thought it was sad.” The way Wendy's eyes instantly fill with tears gives us a glimpse into the largely unspoken pain she and Jon have endured. That one line unlocks so much of the rest of what we see in the film.