Tuesday, August 25, 2015

New movie review: Grandma

Lily Tomlin plays Elle in the new independent comedy Grandma, from writer-director Paul Weitz.

In Grandma, Lily Tomlin plays an older lesbian who sets out to help her teenage granddaughter get the money she needs for an abortion. Some of you will have been offended by that simple plot description, and if you were, I promise this movie will do nothing to abate that offense. That is okay. Not all movies are for all people. For everyone else, filmmaker Paul Weitz has written and directed a riotously funny road movie with a ton of heart that also provides a wonderful showcase for Tomlin.

Elle (Tomlin) is a mostly retired poet living off the checks she receives for her past works. As the film opens, we see her and her girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer), breaking up. Elle says she knew the younger woman would eventually leave her, though it is debatable which of the two women truly instigates the breakup. Just as Olivia walks out of her life, granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up on her doorstep with a problem.

Sage is 11 weeks pregnant and looking to borrow money for an abortion. Elle does not have it as she is still waiting on her next check and cut up her credit cards to make a vague point to no one in particular. The nearby free clinic Elle remembers from her youth is now a coffee shop with terrible coffee, a fact Elle has no qualms about stating to anyone within ear shot, including the owner. So the pair hits the road in Elle’s 1955 Dodge Royal (Tomlin’s actual car) to see who might be able to loan them the money.

To say the two are comically mismatched is an understatement. Sage is a typically shy, painfully awkward 16-year-old who is all too happy to be walked over if it means keeping the peace. Elle is a brusque, second-wave feminist still clinging to her punk rock ideals. In this premise, there is easy comedy, and Weitz, of American Pie fame, among other things, is not shy about going for the obvious jokes and sometimes coasts on Tomlin and Garner’s chemistry and performances.

The vulgar, mean grandma, who occasionally has a heart of gold, is a comedy cliché going back a long way. Weitz and Tomlin spend the first half of the film embracing this characterization and the second half subverting it. In the opening half-hour, Elle curses, yells, makes a mess, and hits a teenage boy in the groin with a hockey stick. This is all very funny, but it grows tiresome, and as soon as it does, Weitz is smart enough to shift gears.

Clocking in at a breezy hour and 19 minutes, Weitz stuffs his screenplay with character turns and revelations that do not so much change who these people are as serve to explain why they are that way. Grandma is the rare film in which there is no villain. The past, filled as it is with old wounds and simmering grievances, is the enemy. The characters who fare best are those who can learn, grow, and move on with their lives.

The centerpiece of the film is an extended two-hander between Elle and an old lover, Karl (Sam Elliott). They have not seen each other in nearly 40 years, and it is clear things did not end well. Karl has strong feelings about Elle, but it is hard to tell if the candle he keeps burning for her is one of passion or one he has waited a long time to burn her with.

Tomlin and Elliott perform a wondrous pas de deux throughout this sequence, with Karl shifting almost imperceptibly from charm to smarm and Elle necessarily contrite until she flips the switch and can hold her tongue no longer. Without wanting to be reductive or patronizing about it, it is great to see two older actors still on top of their game and with solid material to sink their teeth into.

Marcia Gay Harden, Tomlin, and Julia Garner in Grandma.
For Tomlin, especially, the part is a welcome change. Her Emmy-nominated work in the Netflix series Grace and Frankie notwithstanding, it has been years since Tomlin has had a lead role with this much substance and depth. She does not waste a moment of her time on screen, and as shopworn as the character of Elle could be, Tomlin never plays into the stereotypes. She portrays Elle as a complex woman whose pride has gotten in the way of her personal relationships. She can be bitter, and she can be sweet, but what she is always is herself.

If Grandma is not exactly groundbreaking material, it is at least refreshing in its exploration of the multigenerational effects our choices have. This point becomes clear when we finally meet Judy (a stellar Marcia Gay Harden), Sage’s mother and Elle’s daughter. She is a successful businesswoman who seems to have achieved her success by emulating her mother’s worst qualities. She is another stereotype – the pushy female boss – but once again, Weitz bucks convention and almost immediately opens the character up to warmth and humanity.

At the end, we are left with three generations of women struggling to stay true to the better angels of their nature. Each has experienced some pain or trauma that has caused them to retreat – Elle into misery; Judy into work; Sage into herself – but by connecting and opening up to each other, they have a chance to slay the demons of the past and work toward a brighter future.

See it? Yes.

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