It’s a shock to realize ”Grandma” marks Lily Tomlin’s first leading role in a motion picture in 27 years, her last being in 1988’s “Big Business” opposite Bette Midler. Tomlin has been such a prolific presence in just about all forms of entertainment, be it movies, television or the theater, and there’s no stopping her even in her 70’s. But her triumphant return to lead actress proves to be well worth the wait as this movie makes great use of her endless talents.
Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a poet who is as celebrated as she is misanthropic, but even she would say this about herself. We learn her longtime partner passed away some time ago, and she’s still trying to recover from this loss. As the movie starts, she breaks up with her much younger girlfriend, Olivia (the always wonderful Judy Greer), in a genuinely cruel and dismissive way. This should have us hating Elle from the get go, but we can see there’s more to her than meets the eye.
Shortly thereafter, Elle is visited by her 18-year-old granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), who informs her she’s pregnant by her no-good stoner boyfriend and wants to get an abortion. The procedure costs $600 dollars, and she has already set up an appointment at a local clinic. Elle, however, is broke and has no credit cards as she has long since cancelled them (I guess such a thing is possible in this day and age) and turned them into tree ornaments. As a result, Elle and Sage go on a road trip to get the money, and this involves Elle reconnecting with people from her past and Sage discovering how she has to stick up for herself from now on.
From a distance “Grandma” sounds like another road/buddy comedy which goes through the motions we have gotten all too familiar with, but this is not the case. The movie allows its main characters to go on a journey which will allow them to deal with life in ways far more productive than the ones they have utilized thus far. It is also filled with wonderfully down to earth and relatable characters, something I am always pleased to see in a time where local multiplexes remain dominated by superhero movies.
It is really gratifying to see Tomlin kick ass on the silver screen even after so many years. Her character of Elle is cantankerous to say the least, but Tomlin slowly lets you see what is tearing away at her soul as she is forced to deal with past events which have left her and others in a state of disrepair. As U2 once sang, she is stuck in a moment (several actually) that she can’t get out of.
As with any other role she has played throughout her long and justly celebrated career, Tomlin infuses Elle with a complexity and a good dose of humor which makes her irreplaceable in a movie like this. Her character is not one to mess with easily as she does not let anyone take her down without a fight. Just watch her handle her granddaughter’s no good boyfriend as he refuses to take any responsibility for anything he does in his life. It should be absolutely no surprise she does him in when he acts disrespectfully towards Sage.
Also, the fact Elle is gay truly becomes an afterthought after not too long. The realization of this should make us realize how far we have come as a society. We have become far more accepting as a culture of other peoples’ difference, and coming to see this feels like a huge relief.
Julia Garner ends up making quite the impression as Sage as her character also goes on a journey which takes her from being a very vulnerable individual to one stronger and far more prepared to defend herself in a world which can be infinitely unforgiving. Garner has appeared in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For,” and it’s great to watch her hold her own with Tomlin.
As for the other actors, it’s always a joy to see Judy Greer in anything, and she still looks infinitely lovely even as her character gets a number of insults hurled at her. Sam Elliott is excellent as Karl, a former lover of Elle’s who can barely hide the hurt he feels after being spurned by her years before. Marcia Gay Harden plays Elle’s daughter, Judy, and she is a powerhouse here as we see how Judy’s troubled upbringing has molded her into the obsessive-compulsive person she has long since become.
“Grandma” also marks one of the last screen performances of the late Elizabeth Pena before her death at far too young an age. Pena plays Carla, a restaurant owner who is somewhat interested in buying some books from Elle. It’s a shock to see Pena here because I felt like I had already seen the last of her on the silver screen, but there’s still a piece of her unforgettable talent for everyone to see. She was a great presence from one movie to the next, and she will be missed.
This movie was written and directed by Paul Weitz, and many of his movies like “About a Boy,” “In Good Company” and even “American Pie” deal with humanity at its most intimate. “Grandma” was made for under a million dollars, far less than what most independent films get made for these days, and this helps to make it Weitz’s most intimate movie yet. The characters and situations they experience feel real and not easily faked, and it’s always refreshing to see a movie where everything feels genuinely down to earth.
“Grandma” does deal with the very touchy subject of abortion, but it does so in a way that is thoughtful and intelligent. Weitz isn’t out to make some big political statement on the subject, but he does acknowledge the fact it is legal and that people have their reasons for getting one. But this movie is not at all about abortion. It is really about the journey Elle and Sage take together and how it helps them to move on into the future. Whether you are talking about movies or real life, it is always about the journey, not necessarily the destination.
But yes, the main reason to see “Grandma” is for Tomlin who reminds us once again why she is one of the greatest comedians and actresses of all time. She dominates each scene she’s in and holds our attention for every second. There are many reasons why Tomlin has lasted as long as she has in show business, and her performance in “Grandma” is just the latest. I don’t care how old she is because there’s no stopping her, ever.