But the good news is that the film gets a lot of things right. It hints at the agitation and aggression that are so common in dementia. It shows the unrealistic expectations that adult children can bring to the task of caregiving while demonstrating how family members put so many aspects of their own lives on hold while overseeing a loved one's care. And it shows how it's possible for people to find humor in a bleak emotional landscape.
As middle-aged siblings Jon and Wendy Savage, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney both fully inhabit their characters. Jon, a theater professor, is the realist of the pair, rather phlegmatic, yet a calming influence; Wendy, a temp worker and wannabe playwright, is excitable and struggling even before learning of her father's decline. Philip Bosco, as their father Lenny, captures the confusion, frustration and depression of someone in the early stages of dementia. And yet his level of functioning never declines, and we don't see anything resembling dementia's final stages.
Which leads to the most unrealistic aspect of the story: its time span. From first phone call to final breath, perhaps two or three months pass. In the real world of dementia, time spans are more often measured in years, or even decades.
The film ends on a redemptive note for the siblings -- these two flawed people have grown and found ways to connect more fully with the world -- although the very last scene felt oddly regressive and left me unmoved.
The Savages is not a comedy, although it has some hilarious moments. It's the story of flawed people dealing with how to die and how to live. Like the rest of life, the film mingles tragedy and comedy with a dose of absurdity and ultimately finds its humanity. (Rated R)