0432 | Grandma

I’ve always enjoyed watching Lily Tomlin. Here, in what she has hinted may be her final big screen role, she plays the titular grandma Elle, and if it is the last we see of her it’s both a fitting swansong and one of the best roles she has had since the early 1990s. (It was, in fact, written specifically for her.) An episodic, touching and often very funny character piece with an edge, Paul Weitz’s Grandma takes place during the course of one day and the plot is mainly concerned with cranky poet Elle’s attempts to help raise the money for her granddaughter’s abortion. The pregnant teenager in question is Sage, played by Julia Garner, and neither of these two women feel that they can ask the one person who connects them for the cash: Sage’s mother / Elle’s daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), who seems to have rebelled against a hippie upbringing. Instead grandma and granddaughter set out trying to scratch a few dollars here and a few dollars there, hampered by the fact that Sage has had her credit card confiscated and Elle has cut hers up to use the pieces in homemade wind chimes. Some of their encounters across the day are funny, some of them descend unnecessarily into vitriolic but enjoyably-watchable shouting matches, and some of them are eminently touching: the standout is probably Elle’s scene with ex-husband Karl (Sam Elliott), which is all of these things.

Elliott appears for less than ten minutes and is one of the few male characters in this story. Grandma is primarily about relationships that exist between women, both in terms of the different generations of family members and the ones who have made up the majority of Elle’s lovelife. Her partner for 38 years, Violet, has passed away, but she is discussed so often she feels like an integral part of the story; and Elle breaks up with current girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer) in the film’s opening scene, cruelly referring to her a ‘footnote’, but there is a sense that their relationship has ended too soon and their paths will cross again before the day is done.

Elle’s cruelty appears repeatedly and her short fuse makes her difficult to warm to (though you should do, fairly quickly); she has a sharp tongue, and occasionally you feel for those on the receiving end of its lashings, particularly an over-sensitive coffee shop barista and an old friend running an LGBT-friendly cafe restaurant (played by Elizabeth Peña, who sadly passed away shortly after making this film). Yet she is clearly loyal to and protective of those she loves, and those who know her well are so used to her meltdowns they just seem to let them blow over. It’s sharply scripted by Weitz, and Tomlin clearly relishes delivering her portion of the dialogue, spitting out sarcastic lines and threats with gleeful abandon. Grandma may be quite light, coming in at just 79 minutes, but during that time it fizzes and crackles with wit and left-wing sentiment, whether via Elle’s championing of writers like Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer or her reaction to a mother/daughter team of anti-abortion protestors, which ends brutally in a moment of slapstick. Tomlin will probably be best remembered for her various films with Robert Altman, particularly Nashville, for which she won an Academy Award, but if this is the last we see of her thankfully it’s more than a mere footnote.

Directed by: Paul Weitz.
Written by: Paul Weitz.
Starring: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Sam Elliott.
Cinematography: Tobias Datum.
Editing: Jonathon Corn.
Music:
Joel P. West.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
79 minutes.
Year:
2015.

 

Comments 12

  1. Mark Walker December 21, 2015

    Nice one, mate! I normally find Paul Wietz a very hit and (mostly) miss director. That said, I really like Tomlin. I’ve been a big fan since the 80’s and those kooky roles she would do with Steve Martin and Bette Midler. It’s great to hear that she’s could be going out strongly.

    • Stu December 22, 2015

      Cheers Mark. I hadn’t done my research and just assumed this was Weitz’s debut (it has that debut feel about it). The first time I saw Tomlin was All of Me from the 80s, with Steve Martin; the Altman stuff I’ve only caught up with in later life but she is very good in his films.

      • Mark Walker December 23, 2015

        Wietz has done a surprising number of films, man. American Pie and About a Boy are probably his most well known. He also done the Bobby DeNiro/Paul Dano drama Being Flynn. I liked that film but felt that Weitz’s direction was the weak link. It could have been doing with a director that had more dramatic experience at that time. Maybe he’s learned from it though?!

        • Stu December 23, 2015

          I looked him up in the end, was surprised how many of his I’ve seen (though not Being Flynn)…although I’m familiar with him under the term ‘the Weitz brothers’ and hadn’t put two and two together. I think his stronger suit is comedy, but in Grandma there are some nice low-key dramatic scenes involving family or ex-partners that I liked.

  2. Adam (Consumed by Film) December 21, 2015

    Good stuff Stu. Heard many positive things about Grandma, though I’m not nearly as familiar with Lily Tomlin as you seem to be. If this is indeed her last feature film, I could do a Shia Labeouf and watch her filmography in reverse-chronological order. Shia, inspiring as ever.

  3. Three Rows Back December 26, 2015

    Tomlin is one of those faces you recognise straight away but sometimes can’t place what she’s been in. I remember her great work in some of Altman’s best movies like Short Cuts and, of course, Nashville. To give her a vehicle at this point of her career is fantastic; she’s such a distinctive actress. Absorbing read Stu.

    • Stu December 27, 2015

      She’s great in those you mention, and I remember her from a few 80s movies, but she has done a lot I haven’t seen. I agree it’s great she has got a role like this; if it does turn out to be her last it’s a good way to end a career.

  4. Tom December 29, 2015

    Ah, fantastic to see you review this one man. I wonder how many people total saw this? I had at one point forgotten I myself had seen it but while compiling a list of top female lead performances for an upcoming post, I stumbled back up on it (shame on me.) Lily Tomlin is really great here, it’s my introduction to her. Shame if this is her final big screen appearance. Need to heck out Nashville now.

    • Stu December 29, 2015

      Yeah, it’s a shame more people didn’t go to see this…it got good reviews in the press and people in my cinema were laughing quite a bit, so I imagine the word of mouth was good. Perhaps it’ll find a bigger audience on demand. I only saw Nashville for the first time earlier this year…Tomlin’s really good and the whole thing is studded with good performances.

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