“Honor your father and mother”
(this is the first commandment with a promise),
“that it may be well with you and that you may live
long on the earth.”
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger,
but bring them up in the discipline and instruction
of the Lord.
Writer/director Tamara Jenkins’ film is not about jungle-dwelling cannibals or desert-wandering Ab origines, but rather about a brother and sister who share that family name and also have thrust suddenly upon themselves the unwelcome responsibility for their elderly father who can no longer care for himself. Laura Linney is Wendy Savage, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is Jon, in some ways unalike, and yet alike in the fact that both have a passion for the theater—he as a drama professor at the University of Buffalo, and she as a struggling playwright in Manhattan. Not having been in touch much since they went their separate ways, they are brought together when they receive a phone call that their elderly father now needs the care that only a nursing home can provide.
Jon is the sloppy, disorganized sibling shirking responsibility, so it is Wendy who, after the two fly to Arizona, stays for the time required to arrange for the discharge of their father from the hospital and to accompany him back to Buffalo. Jon wants as little to do with the old man as possible. Back in Buffalo he looks for a home that is the least expensive and the closest to the University, convenient for himself more than for the old man. Their reunion with their irascible father is not warm because each still bears the scars from his abuse when they were young. Each also has to deal with the resentment they have for each other, and possibly envy—Jon is working on a book about his idol Brecht, and Wendy has been applying to foundations for a writing grant. When she tells Jon that she has received one from a prestigious foundation, he is taken aback, partly because his application had been turned down by the same people.
Tamara Jenkins brings out both the humor and poignant sadness of a family under stress. Wendy represses her life-long hostility toward their father, now that he is helpless and near death, whereas Jon wants to get everything over with and return to writing his book. When Wendy stays at his messy apartment during their father’s settling in time at the nursing home, old memories of their unhappy past resurface. Jon resents Wendy’s dissatisfaction with the cheerless home he has chosen, going with her reluctantly to look for a far better place, but one which they cannot afford. There are issues between them that are finally resolved, but little of the usual Hollywood cheer in regard to any reconciliation with their father, this being closer to I Never Sang For My Father, than to The Big Fish. Every adult who has been faced with issues of caring for an elderly parent will recognize the truth in this wonderful film.
There is a spoiler in the following.
1) How are the usual issues of what to do with an ailing parent complicated in Wendy and Jon’s case? How does each deal with their feelings in ways that reflect their character?
2) How is it difficult for he two to follow the Biblical commandment concerning parents? What does the apostle Paul’s address to fathers add to this? How had their father provoked them to anger?
3) Have you faced a similar situation? What issues did you have to deal with? If not yet, will you in the near future?
4) What issues of sibling rivalry do you see in the film? Why do you think that Wendy lies to her brother?
5) How are the love affairs of the brother and sister indicative of their character? Is there any future in Wendy’s relationship with her neighbor—and why? What does Jon’s refusal to marry his Polish girlfriend to save her from deportation reveal about him?
6) Neither Wendy nor Jon are free enough from their hurts to be an agent of grace: how does the Nigerian caregiver Jimmy (Gbenga Akiknnagbe) fill this role? What do you think of his advice?
7) How do you think the two have changed for the better by the end of the film? What insights did you take away?