Legendary actress Lily Tomlin wreaks havoc as feminist poet and crazy grandma Elle in Paul Weitz’s amusing and tender “Grandma.” Ever since premiering at this year’s Sundance film festival critics have been raving about Tomlin and she doesn’t disappoint. She’s lively and sincere-- crafting a rambunctious character that’s sympathetic but certainly not saintly.
Instead of spending fifteen or twenty minutes neatly setting up the characters and story, Weitz plops us right down in the midst of the action, allowing for character development on the go. Elle has just broken up with her younger girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer) and still hasn’t quite gotten over the death of her long-term partner Violet from a little over a year ago. In an attempt to free herself further, she’s paid off all her debts and shredded her credit card. Bad timing. Her estranged granddaughter Sage (Julie Garner) comes knocking on her door; she’s pregnant and wants an abortion but needs $600.
That’s heavy stuff to dump on your relative at a moment’s notice. But there’s no time to sit and talk—Elle (who’s sufficiently broke) springs into action and within ten minutes of the movie’s brisk eighty minute run time they’re off in search of the money, which also gives Elle a chance to reconnect with various friends and family members. The daylong time period and unconventional use of the ticking clock device (Sage has scheduled the abortion for five forty five that day) keeps the film tight and organized; there’s a clear objective our protagonists are trying to achieve.
The first third or so of the movie, with its breathless and sharply amusing dialogue, falls primarily in the comedic realm; the scene where Elle and Sage go and shakedown the good for nothing baby daddy Cam, (Nat Wolfe) is delightfully nutty, bordering on screwball. The scene ends with Elle beating Cam with his hockey stick. Though Weitz keeps the picture moving at a snappy pace, never letting the comedic momentum die down.
However, at about the half way point Weitz slows things down a bit and tones back the comedy--as an already eventful day turns into any even more eventful one thick with serious introspection. Unresolved tensions between Elle’s estranged daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden) and ex husband Karl (a terrific Sam Elliott, equal parts silly and vulnerable) come bubbling to the surface. Weitz weaves in weighty themes of loss, regret, abandonment, feminism and parenthood, while also keeping the comedic element intact, preventing the movie from becoming too depressing.
That being said, the humor never undercuts the emotions being felt in these sequences of reconnection and therapy. The confrontation with Karl is particularly strong; the sequence starts off loopy but quickly becomes tender and moving, as past demons and mistakes from Elle’s life are unearthed. Overall, “Grandma” attains a balanced blend of comedy and drama; Weitz knows when to cut in with a witty acidic one liner to lighten a scene up just as he knows when to sit back and let things play straight.
Though, none of this would be possible without Tomlin. She plays a grandma you’d both want to have and one you’d be embarrassed by. Elle is feisty, blunt and a little crazy-- not afraid to speak her mind and like a lot of old people, her sense of self-awareness has partly gone by the wayside. In a scene that takes place in a coffee shop near the beginning, one of the employees tells her she’s being too loud. Elle isn’t having this and throws a miniature fit, spilling coffee on the ground and loudly mentioning her granddaughter’s planned abortion. She can be downright cruel and unappealing.
At the same time if you were her grandchild you wouldn’t trade her for anyone; she may be crazy but it comes from a place of love and compassion. She selflessly helps her granddaughter (someone she hasn’t had much contact with) in her time of need and stands up for her at very turn. And only a crazy loving grandma would beat her granddaughter’s good for nothing boyfriend with a hockey stick. Tomlin’s screwball timing is impeccable and much like film she eventually tones back the comedy to make room for introspection and
dissect her character’s psyche. Elle’s aggressive attitude is masking deep seeded feelings of regret and loneliness that become more apparent as the movie goes on.
“Grandma” doesn’t cut as deep as it could; the ending is perhaps too neat, resolving some fairly heavy conflicts a little too easily. Yet Tomlin’s performance (as well as the rest of the performances) and Weitz’s thoughtful direction provides the film with an appealing and energetic authenticity that’s hard to dislike.