(CNN) -- Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, two of our best screen actors, get the chance to develop subtle, detailed characterizations in the engaging, sympathetic comedy "The Savages," the first film in almost 10 years from "Slums of Beverly Hills" writer-director Tamara Jenkins.
Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman play a sister and brother in "The Savages."
Jenkins hasn't made it easy for herself. Consistently droll, "The Savages" pokes fun at the self-absorption and domestic befuddlement of the liberal intelligentsia who are probably the film's prime audience.
They may be able to take a ribbing, but she grounds this humor in a painful predicament many of us will recognize, but may prefer not to think about -- the grip of dementia.
Indeed, it's a funny thing: The movies bring us psychopathic killers on a weekly basis, but garden-variety psychological decline rarely gets a look (though "The Savages" is the second movie of the year about it).
If Sarah Polley's "Away from Her" handled the subject delicately (even ga-ga, Julie Christie seemed beatific), Jenkins' "The Savages" has the guts to start at the fuzzy end of the lollipop: Lenny (Philip Bosco) forgets to flush. His Sun City, Arizona, caregiver is not impressed, but things get worse when Lenny starts scrawling obscenities over the washroom. That's when Lenny's kids get the call.
Wendy (Linney) is a playwright -- or so she tells herself. In the meantime she's a temp (free office supplies), stuck in an amicable but routine affair with a married neighbor, Larry (Peter Friedman). It's a workout if nothing else.
Her brother Jon (Hoffman) is an academic, vaguely irritated that their estranged father's rapid decline will delay his long-awaited book on Bertolt Brecht, and miserable that his girlfriend of four years is going back to Poland -- not that he'd give her a reason to stay.
Lenny doesn't recognize either of them, but he's compelled to tag along back to icy New York when he's thrown out of his apartment, and his children scramble to find him a nursing home.
None of these developments would normally imply big laughs -- nor would the subtext about the afterlife of an abusive childhood -- but Jenkins manages to be astringent about the mundane humiliations of old age (incontinence, dependency, bewilderment) without sentimentalizing them or rubbing our noses in it. By standing back and taking a sly absurdist line, she lets us make our own mind up about whether to laugh or cry -- or both.
But that's only half of it. Jenkins has written two erudite, caustic, permanently frazzled adult roles, and this time you do have to laugh as they immediately default to childish sibling mode. (The characters are very different, but still it's hard not to think of the brother-sister bond between Linney and Mark Ruffalo in "You Can Count On Me," if only because we see these relationships fleshed out so rarely on the big screen.)
Of course they're not happy about putting their lives on hold while the old man loses his grip on his. Wendy has to move in with Jon for a time (her life is more "portable," he assures her), an arrangement that exposes more than a few home truths, some good, some bad.
But even at their most neurotic and abrasive, Hoffman and Linney underline the vulnerability and sympathy they share. That Hoffman can suggest all this -- while suspended from a doorjamb, in a neck brace, with a dinner plate in his hand and his girth hanging out --probably merits some sort of award, not least for his monumental lack of vanity.
Linney is equally sharp: She can oscillate between pettiness, exasperation and compassion in seconds, and all without saying a word.
It's not surprising that a film about two writers should have writerly virtues and writerly flaws. Despite the untidiness of these lives, the script itself is a shade too neat; a little "bourgeois," just as Wendy worries about her own play. "The Savages" could use a touch of wildness.
Even so, there's a good deal to enjoy here, the acting is top-grade, and unlike so many movies, it has the authentic tug of real life experience in its favor. Just don't take mom and dad. (Or your kids, for that matter.)