It’s been almost a decade since writer/director Tamara Jenkins’s semi-autobiographical coming of age comedy The Slums of Beverly Hills, and yet there’s no signs of rust or dust on her latest, a semi-semi-autobiographical melancholic comedy about one of the least funny topics imaginable—putting your demented, dying parent in a nursing home and then watching them die.
In a somewhat surreal opening in the incredibly surreal Sun City, Arizona, a brightly colored paradise for the aged and elderly, we meet Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco), who is beginning to lose his mind. When his equally elderly and sick live-in girlfriend dies and her family claims her house, Lenny finds himself without a home.
Enter his two adult children, Jon and Wendy Savage (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, respectively), whom Lenny abandoned as children and apparently abused to some unspecified degree. Both have grown accustomed to having nothing to do with their father and little to do with one another, but find themselves reunited and forced to care for him, despite having plenty of growing up to do themselves.
When we first meet Texas congressman Charlie Wilson, he’s naked in a Las Vegas hot tub full of coke-sniffing strippers and Playmates. But when he sees Dan Rather in a turban reporting from Afghanistan, he perks up and asks the bartender to turn up the TV.
That’s Wilson in a nutshell, a whiskey guzzling, tail-chasing believer in the good life, who just so happens to be extremely interested in the hottest front of the Cold War in the early ‘80s, Afghanistan, which the Soviet Union has just invaded (The Afghan people are, he notes, “the only people actually shooting at the Russians.”)
The two seemingly conflicting sides of the character amount to two character traits, and that’s about the extent to which director Mike Nichols, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (working from the late George Crile’s non-fiction book of the same name), and Tom Hanks flesh Wilson out. Hanks’ co-stars similarly get two traits a piece.
Philip Seymour Hoffman (under tinted glasses, a moustache and funny hair) plays a CIA agent, who’s gruff and inelegant but earnest. A blonde Julia Roberts’s Texas fundraiser/activist is an ultra-right wing holy roller who shares Wilson’s love of a good time.