Tuesday, August 25, 2015
Written and Directed by Paul Weitz
I can't think of a better time for Lily Tomlin's performance in Grandma to present itself to us. She's reached the beloved third act of her career, has come out on the other side of the I Heart Huckabees portion of her persona which now seems almost endearing. She has a popular Netflix show, Grace and Frankie, in which she stars with Jane Fonda (and for which she was very recently nominated for a Primetime Emmy), and people are ready to see her in the kind of film role that really showcases all of her most outlandish quirks. Who better than a low stakes filmmaker like Paul Weitz - someone who's always been more 'director-for-hire' than auteur - to craft a screenplay for her? Someone who doesn't need to stretch too far, or get in the way of the greatness of his film's star? Grandma has that indie charm, but it only works when Tomlin is given free reign to perform her career-long schtick in a story that truly knows how to utilize it.
Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a formerly big-time poetess still mourning the death of her partner of thirty-eight years, Violet. Elle lives in relative obscurity now in Southern California, misanthropic and lonely. She ended a four-month relationship with a much younger woman, Olivia (Judy Greer), and did so in a particularly hurtful way when she decided she'd had enough. Elle's life seemed primed for an undistinguished period of melancholy before an unexpected visit from high-school-aged granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner). Sage is pregnant, and with an abortion scheduled later in the evening, she suddenly finds herself without any of money she needs to pay for it, and asks Elle if she can help out. Shocked but concerned, Elle explains her deplorable financial situation: in an attempt to pay off a life's worth of debt, she's left herself with about $43, and on top of that, she's cut up all her credit cards and turned them into wind chimes. Undeterred, Elle decides to take Sage with her on a journey through greater Los Angeles to try and cobble together the needed $640 for the abortion later that day.
At it's basest level, Grandma is a road movie in which the roads don't go very far. Elle and her granddaughter ride through town in Elle's ricketty '55 Dodge Royal trying to reach the few people who might be able to spare the extra cash. Firstly, they visit Sage's scummy boyfriend Cam (Nat Wolff) to whom Elle dispatches some grandmotherly discipline via a hockey stick to the crotch. Elle also visits a couple of friends, including a transgender tattoo artist, Deathy (Laverne Cox), who owes her close to $400, and Carla (Elizabeth Peña) who once offered to pay good money for her first editions of Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir. With each visit, they walk away with only a handful of cash, short of the realistic amount needed for the procedure. Low on options, they visit one of Elle's few hetero flings, Karl (Sam Elliot), a rustic-living, throaty-voiced man's man who still seems bewitched by the very much lesbian Elle. Both Elle and Sage are trying desperately to avoid having to ask help from Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), Sage's mother and Elle's daughter. Judy is a fire-breathing matriarch who is a serious threat for murder if she learns of her daughter's misdeeds. Equally fearful of Judy's raging emotions, Elle hopes they can keep her in the dark.
Grandma's first thirty minutes are a bit hokey, there are times when Elle felt more like Lily Tomlin karaoke than a fully-fleshed character, but the film really hits its stride as Sage and Elle begin the true beginnings of their journey. Grandma isn't a maternal redemption story, because Elle isn't that sorry for her temperamental behavior. Tomlin's ability to keep her performance grounded in her anger, the bitterness of grief and the displacement of old age pushes Grandma past the usual granny-with-a-temper farce (and considering this film comes from the guy who directed Little Fockers, it's easy to fear that as a viable option of what could have happened with this film). Halfway through, I finally started trusting where this film was planning to go. By the time Harden's Judy arrives, Grandma becomes an honest dissection of the complicated relationships of mothers and daughters, the burden that feminism can place on the natural maternal hierarchy. Harden's scenes could have been a hurricane of profanity, but luckily Harden knows the difference between playing angry and playing a mother (she does an equally excellent job with a similar character in 2009's Whip It).
Of course, by the film's end, Weitz has to have Elle apologize to someone, and in most films it would have seemed like a copout. The way Weitz and Tomlin delicately drive through Grandma's final scene is special and sweet. Grandma understands the few moments in which to dip into sentimentality, but still keeps it at an arm's reach. To call this Tomlin's best performance in decades is a bet of a misnomer, cause it's also the best part she's received in that same time span. But she is magnificent here. It's certainly more emotionally charged and honest than anything she's being suffered to perform in Grace and Frankie. Whether this is a turn in the films of Weitz - this is easily the only "independent" film he's ever made - seems like a moot point. He made the film with Tomlin in mind and she paid in full with a performance so completely enthralling; a tide that rises all ships. Talks of Tomlin's Oscar win is already being bandied about on blogs all over the internet. I hope people actually see the movie before they make up their minds about that. Either way, Grandma is one of the few joys narrative cinema has to offer in what has been an otherwise drab Summer offering.