There are a lot of great things that can be said about Paul Weitz’s latest film, “Grandma”, but the best is that it gives us all of the Lily Tomlin we could ever hope for. A comic treasure and an American legend, Tomlin hasn’t been given the spotlight like this in far too long. Weitz, who wrote the film with Tomlin in mind, puts her in literally every single moment and lets her just be who she is: a tough, funny, acerbic woman with a lot on her mind. Fortunately, “Grandma” is a simple, intimate film with a lot of heart, but more importantly it has a lot to say.
Tomlin brings every ounce of her feisty personality to the role of Elle, a character that may seem a bit tough to like at first. When we meet her she’s in the midst of breaking up with her young girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer), and let’s just say she isn’t letting her down gently. As a poet, Elle knows how to use her words to the greatest impact; she can be incredibly harsh but also very gentle. When it comes to expressing her own feelings it tends to be more of the former than the latter. Elle’s ready to move on into her twilight years without any baggage, but before she can do that her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) arrives and needs help, the kind one only asks for when there’s nowhere else to go.
Like last year’s breakout comedy, “Obvious Child”, this is a film that has abortion as a key plot point, but defining it as an abortion movie would be doing an injustice. Sage has an appointment with an abortion clinic later in the afternoon and needs $630 to pay for it. But grandma doesn’t have it, either, and so they take off in her junky old car to find some friends who can help. What unfolds is a walk down memory lane of Elle’s past, encountering those who know more of her than just the colorful, unfiltered misanthrope she is now. We see flashes of generosity in her friendship with a transgender woman (Laverne Cox), and even a little of Elle’s romantic history when she reaches out to Carl (Sam Elliott), a man she shares a bittersweet past with. Elliott, who is quietly having a career resurgence playing the object of older women’s desires, is terrific in a smaller role. He packs decades worth of pent-up anger, frustration, longing, and disappointment into only a few minutes of time with Tomlin. A movie with the two of them together would be tremendous. Someone should get Weitz on that right now.
Weitz, who wrote “About a Boy”, “Admission”, and “Being Flynn” among others, has often found his greatest voice by capturing the intricacies of the student/mentor relationship. Elle may be older and wiser, but one of the fine points of Weitz’s screenplay is that she’s clearly still learning as she goes, even as she’s shepherding Sage through a difficult experience. It’s a career-defining performance for Tomlin, which seems odd to say given all she has accomplished, but truly this may be the best she’s ever been as the lead. Garner, who always looks like she just drifted in from Fairy Land, holds her own opposite Tomlin, but it’s a performance that is given with her observant eyes more so than through words. Marcia Gay Harden is also good as Elle’s daughter, an abrasive, overworked businesswoman who is like her mother cranked up to 11.
Written with care and nuance, “Grandma” treats the subject of abortion with the respect due such a monumental decision in a woman’s life. This is a film that marks a serious step forward in the way such comedies are presented. Elle’s sexuality is merely a piece of whom she is; it doesn’t define her and certainly isn’t used as broad comedic fodder. More importantly, “Grandma” looks at older people and treats them as the complete human beings they are, rather than using them to make jokes about AARP and Early Bird Specials. Along with “I’ll See You In My Dreams”, the Blythe Danner comedy that also featured Elliott, this year has been a good one for older-skewing audiences. In fact, “Grandma” would make a nice companion piece to ‘Dreams’, in that both depict seniors as sexy, funny, and open to the prospect of love.
Sadly, most of us aren’t lucky enough to have a grandma as cool as Lily Tomlin, but at least this gives a chance to pretend.