SPEC D: Tamara Jenkins, w/ Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman. U.S. 113 min. Sep 10, 7 pm Isabel Bader; Sep 12, 3:30 pm Scotiabank 1. Rating: NNNN
Laura Linney's the girl next door, but with a twist. Consider those dimples. Onscreen, they suggest perky amiability, but look carefully and you can see they might hide anxiety, frustration, even a touch of arrogance.
Beneath that apple-pie wholesomeness there's something slightly messed-up going on. Linney's characters seem to have it all together, but like the rest of us, they sometimes make bad choices. They sleep with that married man. They get so absorbed in their work that they ignore their kids. You can't always, to mess with the title of her 2000 breakout film role, count on them.
In one of the strongest post-Streep careers around, Linney's created a gallery of fascinating, fucked-up sisters, moms and wives. Free-thinking Mrs. Kinsey. The Squid And The Whale's self-obsessed poet mom. The heartbreakingly vulnerable singleton from Love Actually.
Black-and-white isn't in her repertoire; she specializes in shades of grey.
"I love those characters because they're not just one thing," says Linney, on the phone from Manhattan. "They're like a big puzzle. You have to translate what's on a page to relationships, character, all of that. That's why I love what I do."
Her latest complicated character - yet another twisted sister - is a doozy, and it might just earn her a third Oscar nomination.
In Tamara Jenkins's The Savages, Linney plays Wendy Savage, an aspiring Manhattan playwright floundering in a series of meaningless temp jobs and half-heartedly sleeping with a married neighbour.
When Wendy's estranged father (Philip Bosco) falls ill in an Arizona retirement home, she and her shaggy Buffalo-based theatre prof brother (Philip Seymour Hoffman) visit him, only to discover they've got to find him another home up north, closer to them. Forced to live together and confront their absentee dad and his dementia, the Savages - that title gets pretty literal - rifle through every last piece of family baggage.
"Wendy's sort of like an eight-year-old who's out of control," says Linney with a knowing chuckle. "She's childish, narcissistic and she lies and fights the way a child does. She doesn't have boundaries for herself or anyone else, and she's got this weird sense of entitlement.
"But what's great is that there's a lot of humour in all that. Plus, there's the undertow of her history, which is darker and gives everything a bit of a kick. She feels abandoned, has identity issues and is trying to figure out who the hell she is."
Linney, on the other hand, seems to know exactly who she is. It's there in her confident voice and determined little chin. She confesses that she and Oscar-winner Hoffman did no special work to appear believable as screen siblings. Both trained in the theatre, so they know the script is king.
"Also, we've got similar temperaments," she says. "There was a real kinship from the start. He'd even call me on days I wasn't filming, just to leave supportive messages."
It also wasn't difficult to confront head-on issues like death, illness and personal failure.
"You know what's more difficult, what they don't teach you in drama school?" she laughs. "How to act at 4:30 in the morning in the freezing cold or boiling heat. That's more challenging than any sort of emotional work. And it's like childbirth. You forget about it once a movie's finished and you're on to the next."
Not that she takes any of the issues in the film lightly.
"Thinking about the death of a parent affects everybody when they get to a certain age," she says. "It's inevitable. Hopefully, you have the privilege of being with a parent when they go. I'm fortunate because both my parents are still alive, but many of my friends have lost parents, and you can see the shift that happens in them. It's a rite of passage, a defining thing."
On the subject of getting older, every journalist who's interviewed Linney lately has brought up the dreaded 40-something female actor curse. She's amused by it all.
"It's like everyone feels doom's around the corner!" she laughs. "Their attitude is, 'I know it's good for you now, but just you wait!' Do people want that to happen to me?"
She pauses, letting that thought sink in.
"Who knows what will happen? I've been extremely fortunate, and I hope I'll be able to continue to work. Maybe if you want to be an A-list movie star and make $5 million each film, that's going to be hard to pull off as you get older. But that's not me. I have a career in theatre, I work in TV, I'll do a radio play."
When Linney tells me she loves getting older, she's completely convincing. No acting.
"It's tremendously liberating," she says. "I've been through a whole bunch of things, and I know what to take seriously - or not. I have a better sense of myself, so I'm much more able to enjoy things."
Linney could ride out that theoretical mid-40s slump better than most. After all, she's never coasted on glamour or courted romantic lead parts. Like Toni Collette, she's unafraid of looking plain onscreen. Consider the 20 pounds she gained to play Mrs. Kinsey. Or the ratty hairdo she sports in The Savages.
"It would be totally inappropriate for me to look good in certain movies," she says. "Ludicrous. It would be selfish to want to twist a character into something else."
Although she started out in studio pics like Primal Fear, The Truman Show and Absolute Power, directed by her mentor, Clint Eastwood ("A spectacular human being"), it's Linney's indie films, beginning with You Can Count On Me, that stick.
"The indies give me more interesting work, for sure," says Linney. "But at the same time, they take an awfully long time to get made. The Squid And The Whale took, I think, four years. Kinsey took another four years. This film was a rough road for a while. Many companies passed on the movie, and said they wouldn't make it with me and Phil.
"The indie world isn't the idealistic world it used to be, or that people want it to be. But it's still a place where writers can produce scripts that are really actable and three-dimensional."
The Savages siblings Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney shine.
THE SAVAGES (Tamara Jenkins) Rating: NNNN
That title says it all. Siblings Wendy and Jon Savage (Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman) squabble about taking care of their estranged father (Philip Bosco), who's old, suffering from dementia and suddenly without a home. Caring for him reopens past wounds and makes Wendy and Jon re-examine their own personal failings.
Writer/director Jenkins (Slums Of Beverly Hills) faces mortality head on in a pitch-perfect film that makes us laugh at its unsettling, uncomfortable truths. Her use of period music adds a lovely counterpoint to the cathartic contemporary battles.
As for Linney and Hoffman, could there be a more believable, or funnier, pair of rival siblings? Every significant sigh, shrug and petty outburst hits home hard. GS