Pets in ‘The Savages’

I was pretty sure I’d like The Savages — Laura Linney as a depressed playwright/temp, Philip Seymour Hoffman as a thwarted, dysfunctional prof endlessly working on a book about Brecht, sibling rivalry, wounded narcissism, what’s not to like? But I liked it even more than I expected. (Maybe I just like movies about Buffalo — I loved Buffalo 66). One bit I especially liked (warning, spoiler ahead) was when Wendy (the Laura Linney character) tells her brother that she’s been awarded a Guggenheim to work on her play. We believe it too (we see her open the letter and gasp) although it seems a bit unlikely; eventually we learn that it was actually a FEMA grant that she applied for on the basis of losing her temp job after 9/11. This says so much so economically about her and their brother-sister relationship: she feels intellectually and creatively unrewarded, and not fully respected by him; she yearns for recognition, praise, support; and it’s fitting, given her sense of being generally traumatized by life, that the grant she does get would not be from the Guggenhein Foundation but the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

There are interesting things going on about animals and pets throughout. When Wendy is having bad sex with her married lover, she looks over at his sweet golden lab (I think) and kind of reaches out to its paw, with the obvious implication that she feels a more genuine connection with the dog than with its owner. She eventually dumps the guy because he neglects and almost kills her plant, and she’s always concerned about her cat Genghis, whom she drags around in a pet carrier. At one point the brother is awakened by a midnight phone call; we assume it’s about their father in the nursing home, but it turns out that it’s the cat that is the problem — Genghis has escaped in their father’s room. In other words, the filmmaker (Tamara Jenkins) plays a little with our sense of who can appropriately fill the position of “object of care.” The father is the primary such object but the role is also filled by a dog, cat, and plant.

The movie ends with a nice touch. The married boyfriend returns to Wendy to try to make up with a bouquet of flowers (after the plant episode). She asks where Marly (his dog) is and he explains that she’s going to be put to sleep tomorrow: her hips are shot, she can’t move around and is horribly depressed, there is an operation they could do but it’s complicated (and presumably expensive). “She’s just old,” he says. With sympathy — the point is not that he’s awful to his dog — but it’s a reminder of the expendibility of every creature: we are all, we’re reminded, in a process of decay, our bodies are falling apart (see the photo of the Seymour Hoffman character above in a neck brace), we’re all a bit like Marly, and look what has to happen to her, “put to sleep” (like the cat, she’s a proxy for the father.) The scene ends with Wendy asking “can I just ask you one favor?” and then it cuts to a year later when her play is being performed. We think, “did she ask him to help her produce her play?”– and then we see her jogging with Marly trotting behind in some kind of elaborate dog wheelchair contraption. She has adopted Marly, the old dog, and offered her the unconditional love and care she never got and always craved from her father, and that she could not herself give him. The impossible wish of the movie has been that the father, or maybe anyone, could get better, not be sick, not decay and fall humiliatingly apart; in these final scenes, Marly gets to fulfill this wish that has been otherwise denied.