2015, R, 79 min. Directed by Paul Weitz. Starring Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Sam Elliott, Laverne Cox, Elizabeth Peña, Nat Wolff.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 11, 2015
Lily Tomlin. Lily Tomlin. Lily Tomlin. She’s a performance legend who’s done great film work in the past for such notable directors as Robert Altman (Nashville, A Prairie Home Companion), David O. Russell (Flirting With Disaster, I Heart Huckabees), and Carl Reiner (All of Me), among others. Yet she owns the show in writer/director Paul Weitz’s smart, deep, funny, and moving Grandma, which I personally take as a hopeful sign of intelligent life in the universe. Forgive me, I’m a partisan on the subject.
Tomlin plays Elle Reid, an academic and poet who writes the kind of verses that cast moonstruck spells over women’s studies majors. Elle is still grieving the relatively recent death of her girlfriend of 38 years, although as Grandma opens we witness her ejecting her lover of four months (Greer) and call her, with unnecessary cruelty, a “footnote.” We come to find that Elle is scathingly honest in all her dealings, although she also harbors great reserves of warmth and feeling. It’s not until Elle is alone in her bathroom after the ex has left that she tosses out the extra toothbrush and breaks into tears.
Elle’s melancholy is interrupted by her granddaughter Sage (Garner) knocking on her door. A tow-headed, college-aged girl, Sage has come to her grandmother with the hope of obtaining the $600 she needs for an abortion that she has scheduled for later in the day. Her boyfriend flaked out on the promised money, and she’s too scared of her high-powered mother Judy (Harden) to ask her for the cash. But Elle has no money either, having paid off all her debts and then cutting up her credit cards to make wind chimes. Truth be told, Elle would also like to avoid confronting Sage’s mother/her daughter, from whom she is not so much estranged as alienated. Thus begins a daylong race around town in Elle’s old jalopy as grandmother and granddaughter try to raise the needed cash. A lot of ground is covered during the film’s brief run time.
Visits to Sage’s irresponsible boyfriend and some of Elle’s old feminist pals are colorful, but no meeting is more revealing than the scene with Elle’s rich former boyfriend from 40 years ago (Elliott, never better – and that’s saying a lot). Bon mots and withering sarcasm tumble out in a steady stream, but underneath it all is a story of three generations of women. Judy, who is the result of a one-night stand, was raised by a loving pair of lesbian mothers but grew so distrustful of men’s stick-to-itiveness that she conceived Sage through the services of a sperm donor. Yet, Grandma is not an abortion drama, intergenerational saga, women’s morality play, or lesbian love story. All these things are merely underlying factors in this true-to-life narrative. There are moments when you fret that the portraits may verge into caricature, or the chapter headings tacked on to the film create unnecessary fuss and distraction, or numerous other things. But Weitz (About a Boy) is a sharp observer, and Tomlin and the rest of the cast are so superlative that any anxiety is quickly quelled. You’re happy to follow this movie over the river and through the woods.