Grandma: Lily Tomlin Finally Gets to Play Lead–and Lesbian

grandma_3_tomlinAs written and directed by Paul Weitz, Grandma is a minor film defined by a major performance from Lily Tomlin, rendering one of her best roles.  Though artistically the tale is clunky (as most of Weitz’s films are), it serves as star vehicle in both the old-fashioned and modern (or post-modern) senses of this terms.  Let me explain.

Our grade: B- (***out of *****)

First and foremost, after decades of doing mostly comedy and playing supporting roles, Tomlin gets to be center-stage, and it’s a pleasure to report that she claims and rightfully owns from first scene to last.  Secondly, and equally important, is the fact that Tomlin plays a fully developed lesbian character, Elle Reid, who is more or less her real age, 75.  (There are not many good roles for women of that bracket).

With no makeup or any vanity, Tomlin embodies the role of a bitter, aggressive, and rather unhappy woman.  Living alone, with no contact with her daughter (harshly played by Marcia Gay Harden), the father of her child, or any friends to speak of.

grandma_2_tomlinIn the first scene, she splits with her much younger girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer), cruelly telling her that she is not in love with her. It’s no big deal to her, as they have only been together for four months, but clearly Olivia is still enamored of Elle and devastated by the split.

The task of the ensuing narrative is to humanize Elle , to show that deep down she is more sensitive and kinder than her shabby physical appearance and outward rude conduct might suggest. After all, dismissing a young vulnerable lover as a “just a footnote” is not exactly a nice gesture.  But, as we later find out, there are reasons of why and how Elle has become sour and abrasive.  We learn that she is still mourning the loss of her three-decade companion.

Just as Elle is ready to call it quits and withdraw from the world–literally–her teenage granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), shows up unannounced and desperate, claiming that she needs $600 for an abortion.  Elle explains that she has just paid off all her debts and, in fact, turned her credit cards into mobiles.

grandma_1_tomlinTime is running out: Sage has an appointment at a local clinic at five in the afternoon, by which time the needed amount of time needed must be found. From that point on, the narrative assumes the shape of a strange road movie, in which Grandma takes it upon herself to drive around and find the cash.

For a while it’s fun to watch Elle as she goes into places she’s not welcome, make her demands (often through rattling off insults) only to realize that she had lost the battle–again.  Is Elle a natural-born loser? a Hopeless misfit, who doesn’t belong anywhere?  Can she redeem herself by offering help to her granddaughter?

The most interesting “stop” in the story occurs midway, when Elle visits Karl (Sam Elliott), her old lover (perhaps more), who lives on a ranch amid the mountains.  The two reminisce and reveal to each other–and the audience–secrets of their past, and when Karl asks for a heartfelt kiss, both Elle and we are surprise.  This scene, arguably the film’s best written, resonates with its elegiac tone and rather sad message, immensely benefiting from the authority conveyed by Elliott, who is in top form.

But, ultimately, Grandma is a schematic, predictable movie, though occasionally it shows heart and soul.  There’s a broad but funny scene in which Tomlin confronts the worthless punk (Nat Wolff) who knocked Sage up, and putting him at his place, charging, “Your face looks like an armpit.”  But some scenes are just thrown into the story to make a point, as, for example, the deliberately awkward meeting between Elle and Olivia’s parents.

Throughout, the subtext of Grandma is stronger and subtler than the text.  As is well known, for fear of controversy and wrath, both Hollywood and the indie world have shied away from treating abortion on the big screen, and Grandma should at least get credit for tackling head-on the problem of teenage pregnancy.