Grandma is tart, smart and short. Director Paul Weitz (About a Boy) wrote the movie for Lily Tomlin and she is perfect as a sourpuss called upon to help her granddaughter. The two end up on a mini-road trip that takes place over the course of less than a day. The entire cast is spot on, with memorable turns by Marcia Gay Harden and Sam Elliott, but the movie belongs to the great Lily Tomlin.
Like most people, I first encountered Tomlin on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, a zippy comedy revue that premiered in 1970. Despite its counterculture trappings, the mindset of the show was rooted in old school Hollywood. Tomlin stood out – certainly she was one of the funniest people on the show, but there was something more. Her characters, from five-and-a-half-year-old Edith Ann to cackling telephone operator Ernestine, were inspired and her monologues cheerfully skewered the system.
Over the decades Tomlin dazzled fans in one-woman shows, on comedy albums, and in movies including Nashville, The Late Show, 9 to 5 and All of Me, where she costarred with Steve Martin.
Grandma is a little film, especially compared to the titles I just mentioned, and its comic moments are coated in surliness. Tomlin plays Elle, a celebrated poet who hasn't done much in a while. We meet as she is breaking up with Olivia (Judy Greer), her girlfriend of four months. Elle won't win any awards for tact, brusquely informing Olivia that she is just "a footnote." Turns out Elle is still mourning the death of Violet, her partner of 38 years.
Enter Sage (Julia Garner), Elle's granddaughter. The high school senior is pregnant and needs $600 to pay for an abortion she has scheduled later in the day. The kid didn't go to her mother because they don't get along. Elle understands – she doesn't get along with her either. After discussing the seriousness of the situation, Elle sets out to help her granddaughter get the money she needs.
Elle, by the way, is broke. She recently tried to make herself feel better by paying off all her debts. She doesn't have any credit cards either – she cut them up and made them into wind chimes. So the two hop in her car and set out to get the money.
To best appreciate the film, you should understand that Elle remains in a lousy mood for most of the movie. Remember, it takes place during one day, and who hasn't sustained a lousy mood for at least that long? Add in the breakup and the pregnancy business, and it's a wonder there's any levity at all.
The road trip includes a confrontation with Sage's boyfriend, Cam (Nat Wolff), that takes a surprising turn, a visit with transgender tattooist Deathy (Laverne Cox), a scrape with an offended barista (John Cho), and a stop at a cafe to sell some first editions to the owner of the place (the late Elizabeth Pena). There are numerous colorful moments I'm not detailing because they might cause you to think that the production is, in part, a "wacky grannie" movie and, hoo boy, it isn't.
The most powerful moments come during two of the latter visits. Elle takes Sage to the home of Karl (Sam Elliott, never better), whom she hasn't seen in 30 years. Suffice to say a whole film could have been built around Elle and Karl. Eventually, of course, Sage's mother/Elle's daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden) must come into play. Harden is outstanding, and the film becomes even more layered and rewarding with her presence.
Despite it's brevity, Weitz allows a couple of scenes to meander, and at one or two points the score gets intrusive. Those are the only complaints I've got. "Grandma" deals with the roles we play. It starts with Elle's tough, angry presentation style, then gradually reveals more about her and those around her, allowing us to view the characters in a larger context. Weitz doesn't humanize the characters, he reminds us that they're already human and our job is to remember that.
Plus it's a Lily Tomlin movie. What more do you need?
Showing: Friday, in wide-release