Leonard Savage (Philip Bosco) sits in the Arizona home he shares with his girlfriend and eats his cereal, but someone is about to interrupt him. That someone is his partner's nurse, Eduardo (David Zayas), who demands that Leonard flush away what he has left in the toilet bowl, telling him he is there to attend to the woman's needs and not his. Leonard responds by wandering into the bathroom and writing the word "prick" on the wall in his own shit. Something clearly has to be done as the old man is not able to look after himself anymore, so his daughter Wendy (Laura Linney) is contacted, and she in turn gets in touch with her brother Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) - what can they do?
That question is especially pressing as they have been estranged from their father for so long, and now he will barely recognise his offspring even as they venture south to collect him and work out what their next move should be. Although it's never spelled out in writer and director Tamara Jenkins' script, we can infer that Leonard didn't do his children much good, not when they were growing up and not when he bowed out of their lives for the preceding passage of time. This is because we can see in the scenes that introduce them that Wendy and John are not getting by too well, with she suffering through temping jobs as she tries to get her plays funded, he struggling with a book he's writing as his Polish girlfriend is forced to return home, and both not getting any younger.
This may have been billed as a comedy drama, but there's precious little to laugh at here as Jenkins adopts the "this is why we can't have nice things" approach to family stories where there are good things in life, but they are continually dragged down by the unpleasant stuff, like lying, damaging relationships and of course the big one, death. At the opening this looks as if it will be taking a smug look at the characters, looking down on them from a great height as they each fail to deal with the latest problem shoved their way, whether it's Leonard's encroaching dementia or Wendy's troubled love affair with a married man, her neighbour Larry (Peter Friedman) who pretends to his wife that he is walking her dog when he's actually cheating on her.
Wendy exists on a diet of pills, and even when she has to clear out Leonard's things from the house he shared with his now-deceased partner she pockets a bottle of painkillers for her own use. As her father has been thrown out of his accomodation, he has to find somewhere else to live and she is fooling herself that he will be able to find a residential home when what he actually needs is something closer to round the clock care in a nursing home. Although this is something that all too many sons and daughters have to face when the age of their parents becomes a problem, it's not often addressed in the movies, not the ones that wish to leave you with a happy ending at any rate, but Jenkins here does something interesting with what could have simply been depressing.
Yes, the film accepts that there's not much solace in reaching the end of your life as indignity is piled upon indignity, but it does recognise that we can take comfort in telling the audience they are not alone in their concerns, as facing the final curtain is the one thing common to us all, whether for those we are close to or for ourselves. So with that on the table, Jenkins manages to contrive a mood of triumph for the close of her movie, not one which sees the characters jumping up and cheering "Yay! We're alive!" but one which rewards all the hardship they've been through with a note of contentment. Oddly, it's this ending which sounds false, trying a little too hard to wrap things up without making us leave with a cloud of gloom hovering over us, but to compensate there is a clutch of excellent performances to hold our interest: you can't argue with the idea of pairing Linney and Hoffman in the same film, and they are as superb as you would want them to be. Music by Stephen Trask.