Lily Tomlin tackles age with caustic zeal as ‘Grandma’
When some people of a certain age realize they’re old enough to be grandparents, they’re horrified. But they might feel better about the whole thing if they decided to abuse the privileges of age with as much snarky verve as Lily Tomlin in Grandma. As the caustic grandmother of a pregnant teenager, with only hours to scrounge up the money to fund an abortion, Tomlin leads the girl, the movie, and the audience on a confrontational odyssey with past mistakes, present conflicts, and touchy family dynamics. Tomlin plows through the material with a refreshing take-no-prisoners attitude that redefines the concept of “old age” onscreen.
Although it was written and directed by Paul Weitz, the film has a decidedly femme-o-centric attitude. (Tomlin’s character came of age in the “Women’s Lib” era, and high on the list of fools she does not suffer gladly is anyone—especially women—who has never even heard of “The Feminine Mystique.”) The principal family and romantic relationships in the story are between women. Some plot points feel a bit facile, some of the humor could have a bit more bite, but mostly Weitz crafts an engaging setting for Tomlin’s brisk and complex performance.
Elle Reid (Tomlin) is a “moderately well-known” poet whose heyday was 40 years ago. The story begins as she’s breaking up with her girlfriend of four months, Olivia (Judy Greer), for reasons Weitz doesn’t quite make clear; Olivia doesn’t seem to want to go, and, after some harsh words, Elle sobs in secret in the shower. It may be, in part, that Elle is still grieving for her partner of 38 years, recently deceased, the woman with whom Elle raised her own daughter.
The next morning, Elle’s granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), appears on the doorstep of her modest home in the suburbs of L.A. She’s 10 weeks pregnant, and needs money for an appointment at the clinic later that afternoon. With little in her bank account, and having just cut up all her credit cards as a political protest, Elle takes charge. Enraged when Sage’s boyfriend and would-be tough guy, Cam (Nat Wolff), refuses to take any responsibility, Elle finds an effective way to extort a few bucks out of him. But her attempt to sell some first-edition feminist books to an old friend (a nice cameo by the late Elizabeth Peña) comes to naught when Elle’s temper gets in the way.
After a fruitless visit to an old pal (also broke) at a tattoo parlor, Elle steels herself to drive her antique 1955 Dodge (a car Tomlin owns in real life) up into the hills to beg a favor from another old friend, Karl (Sam Elliott). The complicated emotional undercurrents have to be played just right in this surprising sequence, one of the film’s best, and Tomlin and especially Elliott manage a very delicate dance of affection, blame and regret.
Ultimately, the women have to face their worst fear—Sage’s mom and Elle’s daughter, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden). A ferocious businesswoman with a desktop attached to her treadmill, Judy has always been too busy to marry and start a family in the conventional way (Sage is the product of a sperm donation). She and Elle have been playing dueling lifestyles since Judy was five, and that’s a lot of baggage to put aside, even in the present emergency.
Not everything works. When Elle lets fly an unreasonable barrage of rage against a coffeeshop barista, she seems more petty than free-spirited. But locals will get a kick out of references to the time bohemian Elle has spent “up in Santa Cruz.” And what resonates most is a sense of outrage over the injustices of the world, the ongoing inequality of sexual politics, and the overall decline of culture—all targets Tomlin’s angry Elle takes on with combative zeal.
With Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, and Sam Elliott. Written and directed by Paul Weitz. A Sony Classics release. Rated R. 79 minutes.
BUMPY RIDE Julia Garner (left) and Lily Tomlin (right) in a 1955 Dodge (a car that Tomlin owns in real life) in Paul Weitz’s ‘Grandma,’ which also references Santa Cruz.