"I know everyone's really itching for a book about Bertolt Brecht this holiday season," Wendy Savage (Laura Linney) says sarcastically to her brother John (Philip Seymour Hoffman) midway through The Savages. He's trying to use a deadline for his book on the famed playwright as an excuse to dodge responsibility for his aging father, long estranged from his children until signs of his increasing dementia return him to their care.
While these family members' emotional distance from each other finds a parallel in Brecht's "distancing effect", the film does not, though writer-director Tamara Jenkins certainly picks up on Brecht's suggestion of using "dark comedy" to address serious issues. The film's deft mix of humor and drama dares you to laugh at the most uncomfortable moments (a nursing home showing of The Jazz Singer is squirm-inducing on many levels). Of course, the actors' part in making the story work is huge - everyone is well cast, and Linney's and Hoffman's performances are pitch-perfect.
Obviously, a movie referencing Brecht is no popcorn film, but you really don't have to know anything about him to understand - and be engaged by - the basic family drama at the heart of The Savages.