Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) lives in the Sun City retirement community in Arizona with Doris, his companion of 20 years. When Doris dies, her children sell their home and Lenny's son and daughter, both in their late 30's, become responsible for his care. Wendy (Laura Linney) is a playwright in New York City. Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theater professor in Buffalo. Niether has seen Lenny for many years. He had been an abusive and violent father. The mother is absent, apparently having abandoned the family when the children were young. Both Wendy and Jon seem lost. Wendy is having an unsatisfying affair with a married man and Jon's partner, Kasia, is about to return to Poland because her visa has expired and he is not ready to marry her. Reaquainting themselves with their father forces them to confront the danger of letting unhappy childhood haunt them, and makes them recognize their difficulties being adult (they have Peter Pan names).

Lenny has dementia, probably Parkinson's. Wendy and Jon find him in restraints in a hospital bed. He is hostile from the outset. They take him from the bright light in Arizona to dark sleet in upstate New York, and they put him in a nursing home. Wendy stays with Jon as their father "settles in." She feels guilty but does all the wrong things in trying to make up, while Jon is pragmatic and resentful. Brother and sister get to know each other better. As they bicker, their father seems to watch from a distance with an opacity that is also a kind of dignity. His condition deteriorates and he dies in the nursing home. Wendy returns to New York.

Six months later, Wendy's play about their childhood ("Wake Me up when it's Over") is being produced in New York, and Jon is on his way to give a conference paper ("No Laughing Matter: Dark Comedy in the Plays of Brecht") in Poland where he plans to be reunited with Kasia.


This film is a powerful and largely unsentimental anthropology of geriatric middle-class Americans and their overwhelmed and oddly adolescent children (what Jon calls "the guilty demographic"). The "savages" of the title are a fascinating tribe. They are contrasted with the non-middle-class and often non-white people who are paid to care for the aging. In particular, a Nigerian male nurse who befriends Wendy is, rare in this film, neither deluded nor despairing.

From its opening sequence at Sun City (elderly cheerleaders in short skirts, golf carts and home help) to Lenny's quiet death in the nursing home, where he seems more comfortable and well-cared for (despite the bad smells) than his children believe, the film exposes the collusion of denial and guilt and the way both, paradoxically, diminish the dignity of the old. Wendy tries to move Larry to a "nicer" nursing home-one with a slicker ad campaign. Jon accuses her of selfishness, saying the "wellness" and the "landscaping" are there for her, not her father, and cannot conceal the reality, the "rotten stink" of death.

The film is also about storytelling as identity, our imagined lives as necessary fabrications. Performance, theater, and narrative inform Jon and Wendy's responses. Asked to go to Arizona to find their father, Jon says "we're not in a Sam Shepard play." He hears that Larry is dying while teaching a class on Brecht. After he gets the news, a students asks "What's the difference between plot and narrative?" And Wendy tells lies. She tells her lover she has suspected cervical cancer, tells her brother she won a Guggenheim. Niether is true. This makes us skeptical about the version of their childhood presented in her play. Jon neither confirms or denies the scene he watches, weeping, in rehearsal--where their father hits Jon as a boy, repeatedly, and Jon rises from the scene in a harness, like Peter Pan detached from normal growth--but it is clearly a story that has dominated their lives at a terrible cost, and their father's death, in their presence, is the only way that this particular story can be allowed, at last, to end.

The film's ending is guardedly optimistic. The nursing home is euphemistically called a "rehabilitation center." It does, perhaps, rehabilitate--re-fit for life, and also for death--by fostering the tough acknowledgement of mortality, something that Sun City denies to the end. (Doris, already almost catatonic, dies there in the middle of a manicure the beautician says is to make her "sexy.")

Wendy's lover tells her that he plans to euthanize his old labrador because her hips are weak and "rehabilitation is brutal." The film ends in a scene of Wendy running with the dog, who has been outfitted (brutally? ridiculously? happily?) with wheels.


Two 2008 Academy Award nominations: Best Actress (Laura Linney) and Best Original Screenplay (Tamara Jenkins). Golden Globe 2008 nomination: Philip Seymour Hoffman best actor. Won 2 Independent Spirit awards: screenplay and best male lead (Hoffman).

Primary Source

Fox Searchlight