The Savages opens amid bright colors, sunshine, and an oddly cheerful (though a bit unsettling) song and dance routine by a troupe of elderly ladies in the golf/retirement community of Sun City, Arizona. This is a land of golf carts and cactuses, townhomes and shuffleboard—a veritable paradise for the over 70 set. But the dreamy façade is quickly spoiled by the cruel realities of aging.
Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco)—an aging resident of Sun City—has just lost his companion of 20 years, and is himself facing the early stages of dementia. After an unfortunate incident involving fecal wall graffiti, Lenny is put in a local hospital for observation, and his two out-of-touch children are called in to deal with their father's deteriorating mental condition. Soon the kids transport Lenny back to the East Coast—specifically the drab, depressing Valley View nursing home in Buffalo, New York. Unlike Sun City, the colors here are muted (captured nicely by cinematographer Mott Hupfel), the air bitterly cold, the spirit less than hopeful. It's not a place to spend one's "golden years." It's a place to wither away.
Wendy (Laura Linney) and Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are the Savage siblings—East Coast writers with little concern for each other and even less (on the surface) for their father. It is repeatedly suggested that the Savage children had a very troubled upbringing—that Lenny and an unnamed mother were less than ideal parents. Nevertheless, they are the offspring of Lenny, and like every son and daughter of an elderly parent, they must face the tough responsibilities that come with a caregiving role-reversal.
Wendy is a playwright from New York City, struggling to get work and taking temp jobs to pay the bills. Though she is constantly fearful of living a cliché d life (as a "spoiled American bourgeois writer complaining about her difficult childhood"), Wendy nevertheless fits many "single starving artist" stereotypes: She lives in a tiny, trendily decorated East Village apartment, her only companion a stubborn cat she calls "Beast." She is also phoning in an affair with a married man named Larry (Peter Friedman), who is fifteen years her senior and looks a bit like her father. (Is she using him to work through some father issues? Probably.) As the film opens she is sending out grant request letters to help finance her latest "subversive, semi-autobiographical" script that details her troubled early family life. Its title: Wake Me When It's Over.
Jon is also a writer, though of a less creative and more academic nature. He's a professor at a college in Buffalo, teaching classes on comparative literature and critical theory while writing books and papers with titles like No Laughing Matter: Dark Comedy in the Plays of Bertolt Brecht. The fact that Jon is an esoteric Brecht scholar is not just a funnily apt character trait; it is also of great thematic significance to the film. Brecht was a modernist German playwright whose concept of "epic theater" saw drama as a forum for social and political discourse—not an "organic work of art" that invoked emotion and passion. Likewise, Jon is a scholar—in the most detached sense of the word—who cannot be bothered with human emotion or personal issues. He rarely laughs and never cries, preferring rather to live mechanically and rationally—fulfilling obligations but never letting his soul into the fray.