Starring Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Sam Elliott, Laverne Cox, Nat Wolff, Elizabeth Peña, Sarah Burns, John Cho, Don McManus, Lauren Tom, Colleen Camp and Judy Geeson.
Screenplay by Paul Weitz.
Directed by Paul Weitz.
Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. 79 minutes. Rated R.
Lily Tomlin has a career of going on 50 years of steady work, and while she has been successful in multiple artistic endeavors – as a comedienne, on television, in film, performing theater, writing literature – she somehow has never become huge in any of these endeavors.
Film in particular seems to have had trouble how to use Tomlin’s eccentric talents. Though she’s been in her share of classic or popular movies over the years – including Nashville, 9 to 5, Short Cuts, The Late Show and All of Me – just as often she was miscast in ridiculous garbage like The Incredible Shrinking Woman, The Beverly Hillbillies, Moment by Moment, The Pink Panther 2 and I Heart Huckabees.
As a woman of a certain age in Hollywood, the good roles have become fewer and further between for Tomlin, and when she does get something to do these days, it tends to be a small supporting gig. One of those supporting gigs a couple of years ago was playing Tina Fey’s fiery, eccentric mother in the romantic comedy Admission. While that movie ended up pretty much tanking in the box office and only pulling down lukewarm reviews, the one stand-out performance everyone pointed to was Tomlin.
Therefore, when that film’s director Paul Weitz was putting together his next film about a widowed and angry lesbian grandmother trying to help her granddaughter raise money for an abortion, he did not have far to look for his star. The role she has taken in Grandma is the best showcase that Tomlin has gotten in years (much better than her other big role this year, co-starring with Jane Fonda in Netflix’s pretty awful sitcom Grace & Frankie), and boy does she take advantage of it. I would not be surprised to hear Tomlin’s name bandied about come Oscar nomination time.
The rest of the film does not quite live up to Tomlin’s performance, but it’s still pretty darned good. It is not so much a plotline as a character study with a series of small occurrences held together by Tomlin’s cranky-but-fascinating persona.
In the film, Tomlin plays Elle, an aging hippie who found a bit of fame and notoriety as a poet in the 1960s. (Actually, that description pretty much describes her character in Admission as well.) Elle is still mourning the death of her long-time companion Violet. She is in the middle of a relationship with a much younger waitress named Olivia (Judy Greer), who was a fan of her writings, however Elle is resisting committing to someone else. This is a particularly difficult relationship for Elle because her natural anger and combativeness clashes with Olivia’s endlessly giving and selfless qualities. As the film opens, she pretty harshly dumps Olivia, only acknowledging how much the breakup hurts her after Olivia has gone.
While she is alone and feeling sorry for herself, Elle is visited by her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner). Sage is pregnant and needs to borrow money for an abortion. Unfortunately, Elle had just worked herself out of debt and decided as a fuck you to the man to cut up all her credit cards, so that she would never find herself in that situation. (Always a hippie, she used the pieces of the cards to make a windchime.) Problem is she has almost no cash left over and no real way of getting money. Elle and Sage only agree on one thing – they do not want to borrow the money from Sage’s mother (Elle’s daughter) Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), a tightly-wound corporate executive that both are somewhat estranged from.
Therefore Elle fires up Violet’s vintage car (which hadn’t been driven since her death) to scrape together the money before a late afternoon appointment at the abortion clinic. Grandma and granddaughter drive around Los Angeles trying to scrape up the money from the baby’s father, Elle’s old friends and even a still-bitter short-lived ex-husband (Sam Elliott).
Most of the vignettes are interesting and fun and lead the two women to very different life epiphanies. Even the occasional times when the stories or characters don’t appear to work, the film pulls things together in a smart and interesting way. For example, when we finally do meet Elle’s businesswoman daughter Judy, she seems almost unbelievably harsh and angry. However, later the character softens up somewhat, making her seem more of a person and less of a cartoon.
However, Grandma really works best as a star vehicle for the eccentric talent of its leading lady, and Tomlin brings the goods. For Tomlin’s tart and smart portrayal above all, Grandma is a must see.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2015 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 4, 2015.