Sometimes it all comes down to the basics: a simple script with all the frills removed, characters who are not in the least bit hip or witty or clever, brilliant actors to portray them, and a director with enough faith in her material that she never deigns to indulge in flashy stylistic whorls, using the camera like a scalpel instead of a canvas. Viz: Tamara Jenkins's The Savages.

Like all great drama, this is a story about very specific people in a very specific situation: Wendy Savage (Laura Linney) drifts from temp job to temp job in New York City while trying to secure a grant to write her autobiographical plays, all while carrying on the world's saddest affair with a decidedly unattractive - in all senses - married man, Larry (Peter Friedman). In Buffalo, Wendy's brother Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is busy researching and not writing a comprehensive study of Brecht, despite nobody, including his publisher and himself, finding the idea of another damn Brecht book all that compelling; he also dodges the hints dropped by his girlfriend of three years, Kasia (Cara Seymour), that it might be time for an engagement, if only to prevent her own deportation. Both Savage siblings are entering middle age with an unstated sense of dread that all that they have amounts to a whole lot of nothing.

Into this grimness comes the news that their long-estranged father Lenny (Philip Bosco) is on the cusp of dementia, reeling from the loss of his long-term girlfriend and consequently her home in Sun City, Arizona. After a wholly unpleasant reunion, the children agree that the only way for anyone to survive this situation is if Lenny is put in a nursing home; and thus comes the guilt and fear and occasional burst of long-simmering hatred.

That's all. The bulk of the movie is essentially plotless, and simply consists of watching the Savages each deal with the crap hand they've suddenly been dealt. Generally, it's presented as a comedy, and it surely earns more than its share of genuine laughs, but none of that is enough to keep the bleakness out. As is oftener the case in life than the movies, laughter exists here to stop the tears from coming. It is said that comedy is tragedy plus time; so what is a film that asks us to laugh as a tragedy unfolds? A much braver sort of comedy, and sometimes a pretty uncomfortable and unpleasant one.

The Savages is similar in a great many ways to another film from earlier this year, Away from Her: a film about the process of coping with a family member's crippling age-related illness, more concerned with basic human psychology than twisty storytelling, shot in a minimally intrusive style that privileges the actors. But while Away from Her was specifically about how painful it is to deal with the wasting-away of a loved one, Jenkins's film is the polar opposite: love is a very distant, alien concept to the Savages, not just between parent and children, but between those children and the world around them. Jon visibly trembles with frustration at his inability to love, while Wendy sublimates that inability into flat, neurotic behavior, culminating in a kiss that makes for one of the most awkward moments in any movie this year.

Not every sort of actor could play this type of character without resorting to chest-pounding, but fortunately Linney and Hoffman - and, it turns out, the veteran character actor Bosco - aren't just any actors, and the three performances at the core of The Savages are simply brilliant. Linney especially gives what might well be a career-best performance; her usual trick of acting primarily with her unnervingly blue eyes and a mouth that always looks scared even when she smiles is put to great use here, and she couples that to a physical performance that doesn't seem to exactly coincide with her body, like she's always just forgotten where she is and what she was doing. On top of this, she foregrounds the characters emotional neediness, making clear why a woman like Wendy would bother with a lost cause like Larry: because he was there and he paid attention.

Hoffman is nearly as good, and I hope it's not cruel of me to ponder if the only real problem with the actor is how damn much we're seeing him this holiday season (see also: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and Charlie Wilson's War. He's having what you might call a "banner year"). Jon is a much different figure than Wendy, and Hoffman doesn't go for the same kind of vulnerability as Linney, although perhaps surprisingly for an actor typically noted for wrapping a layer of smug irony around himself, he brings a great deal of emotional nakedness to the role, such as in a handful of scenes where he...essentially, he cries, but it's sort of a dry, angry crying. It's a bit shocking, especially from that actor. In the smallest of the lead roles, Bosco doesn't get to be as familiar as the other two, but he leaves an unmistakable mark on the film, oscillating from confusion to rage in tiny little strokes, acting rather a lot like just about every person I've ever met who lived in a nursing home.*

Tamara Jenkins (whose only prior feature, 1998's Slums of Beverly Hills, remains unseen by me) puts a lot of faith in her actors, recognising that if we're not engaged by the characters, no amount of visual razzamatazz is going to draw us in, but that's not to say that the film isn't visually solid; on the contrary, most of the compositions are quite formally elegant and rigidly constructed, adding a sense of inevitability and claustrophobia to the story. Imagine if Wes Anderson directed a movie after everyone he loved died of cancer, and you're most of the way there. There's also a strong use of color throughout the film, which moves from the bright greens and blues of Sun City to the browns and whites and other browns of Buffalo in the winter. The film's rare splashes of color are both cheerful and sad all at once. Which is actually a pretty decent summation of the film as a whole.

There's nothing about the film that isn't aesthetically conservative, but that hardly counts as a detriment when a film is this emotionally wracking. All great drama is about specific people in a specific situation, and while The Savages tells what is, I suppose, an essentially common story, it is the very particular humanity of the characters involved that makes it a successful and unique work of art, and ultimately so very easy to relate to. We are not all of us like Wendy or Jon Savage, but their experience is so fully-lived that we have an uncomfortably clear idea of what exactly they must be going through. Fictional or no. That kind of overwhelmingly sympathetic art isn't something to take for granted.