Grandma March 3, 2016
Despite the fact that she’s a household name, and a timeless national treasure, Lily Tomlin has always resided outside the Hollywood mainstream. With a sardonic, deadpan personality, films never seem to be able to contain her within the constraints of a supporting performance. Too bright and too extraordinarily unique of a comedic talent, her best films are the ones where she’s doing all the talking, everyone else stepping aside to let her drollness run free. In Roger Ebert’s review of what I think is her best vehicle, 1977’s The Late Show, he called her an “uncharted continent,” as it’s rare for a movie to really do her right. Grandma, from 2015, makes for of the few instances.
Grandma makes for the first film in decades to star (underlined and emboldened) Tomlin. With iconhood already under her belt, it makes for a late, but still welcome, celebration of what has made her such an enduring talent. In the film, she is Elle Reid, a cynical, wrinkled has-been poet fresh from a breakup with a younger woman (Judy Greer). Tired of herself and wanting more out of life, she figures the decision will act as a sort of reset button after years of turmoil (her long-term life-partner passed just a year or so before her present-day relationship). But that short period of renewal is abbreviated when her granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), arrives on her doorstep with some dramatic news: she’s pregnant, and she’s getting an abortion. She has scheduled an appointment with the local clinic for 5:45. There’s a setback, though: she doesn’t have the $630 needed for the procedure.
Sage would go to her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), but, being haughty and prone to quick judgment, she decides that asking her dear-old pot-smoking grandma is the better move. But maybe it’s not the best decision, since Elle, in her cleansing of her past bad habits, has cut up all her credit cards and made them into wind chimes. Desperate, Elle comes up with a solution that’s bound to fail — go around the city and ask old friends for money, despite her severing ties with several of them years previously. It might work, but she isn’t a woman easily able to put on a nice face and sugarcoat the words that come out of her mouth. We can only keep our fingers crossed until 5:45, when Sage’s choice will become final.
Grandma often feels like a road movie. Its leading ladies travel around in a beat-up 1950s black sedan, and stop only to visit with colorful characters who may or may not help them financially. Included is Laverne Cox, a tattoo artist particularly fond of Elle’s charmingly misanthropic ways; Sam Elliott, a former lover who both still adores and outrightly despises her; and, eventually, Sage’s mother, who doesn’t seem to be related to either of Grandma’s main characters until we get to know her better. Short and concise, though also richly drawn by writer/director Paul Weitz, the film is both an acting exercise and an incisive example of the poignant comedy-drama. Tomlin leads the way with a blistering performance that stands as one of her best. Few filmmakers know how to use her, the rarities Robert Altman (Nashville, Short Cuts, A Prairie Home Companion) and David O. Russell (Flirting with Disaster, I Heart Huckabees). Luckily, Weitz stands beside them.
It’s a wonderful, minuscule gem of a movie, fitting much empathy and much caustic humor within its brief running time. Grandma is a highlight of 2015, a true late coming-out party for the cultishly beloved Tomlin. I’d like it even better if it ran marginally longer, exploring its central relationships just a little more. But I’ll take what I can get, and, for now, Grandma is a filling feast of writing, directing, and acting. B+