Film Review: Grandma

Lily Tomlin Is A Tough Old Bird In Emotional Comedy About The Choices We Make In Life

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
“Who wants to go to Sonic?”
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Back in 1999 brothers Paul and Chris Weitz wrote and directed a little film called American Pie. That raunchy comedy hit made over $100 million and inspired five sequels. The duo went on to write and direct comedies both bad (American Dreamz) and good (About a Boy), before branching off and trying their hand at adapting tween lit franchises (Chris did The Golden Compass and Twilight Saga: New Moon, while Paul tackled Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant). Now, as apparent penance, the brothers have each retreated to the low-budget indie world. In 2011, Chris contributed the simple immigrant drama A Better Life. This year Paul gives it a go with the microcosmic dramedy Grandma.

Despite the … let’s call them
eclectic resumes of the Weitz boys, they’re both smart fellas. Paul, for example, is wise enough to start Grandma with an ace in the hole. That hole card is septuagenarian actress and comedienne Lily Tomlin. She plays Elle Reid, a feminist, lesbian, poet, occasional academician and full-time cranky misanthrope. She starts the film off by breaking up with her much younger girlfriend (the ubiquitous but always welcome Judy Greer of “Arrested Development,” “Married,” Jurassic World and Ant-Man). Though she seems cold and unfazed by the event, Elle is privately nursing some very old wounds. Seems her longtime partner of 28 years passed away some time ago of an unspecified illness, and Elle still isn’t over it—not that she’d let anyone know.

Relief (of a sort) arrives in the form of Elle’s sweet-faced teenage granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner,
The Perks of Being a Wallflower). Turns out Sage is pregnant and has decided to get an abortion. In fact, she’s made an appointment for later on that afternoon. The only problem is she’s broke and terrified to talk to her mother about it. Elle, who’s been feuding with her uptight and judgmental daughter for years, can sympathize. Unfortunately, Elle’s flat busted as well. And in some misguided act of corporate rebellion, she cut up her credit cards and turned them into wind chimes. So, welcoming the distraction, and adopting it as some kind of feminist mission, Elle leads her granddaughter on a quest across Los Angeles trying to raise $500 by 6pm.

The quest starts at the house of Sage’s boyfriend, but he quickly proves himself an unhelpful jerk-off—particularly after Grandma beats him with a hockey stick. Elle, who’s rather famous for burning bridges, flips through her mental Rolodex looking for old friends who might be good for a few bucks. But everybody’s either tapped out or harboring some old grudges against Elle. Over the course of the day, Elle and Sage’s quest becomes less about the acquisition of some fast bucks and more about the detritus their dysfunctional family has left behind. After a particularly soul-searching visit to a former (and uncharacteristically male) lover (Sam Elliot), Elle figures it’s finally time to confront the elephant in the living room.

All day Elle and Sage have been dancing around the subject of Elle’s daughter (and Sage’s mom), Judy. Judy (Marcia Gay Harden) is a tightly wound, overachieving corporate type who inherited her mother’s short fuse. Both Elle and Sage are scared of talking to her—and by extension admitting their long list of failures. At the end of their rope, however, they relent and show up at Judy’s office. This takes the film into its final round of revelations and character confrontations.

The plotline of
Grandma is simple and linear. It’s basically two women riding around in an old car trying to drum up 500 bucks before the end of the business day. Weitz’ dialogue is occasionally a bit too pat, but the biting sense of humor is right on target. The characters have their cliché moments (the angry lesbian, the pregnant teen, the uptight corporate lawyer), and yet the well-paced script treats them all like actual human beings—allowing them to be right and wrong, smart and stupid, wise and oblivious, loving and hurtful all at the same time. It’s this still, deep pond of emotion that lifts the film above the standard, quirky indie comedy it could easily have been.

At the end of the day (literally, in this case), it’s all Tomlin’s movie. She’s perfect in the role: Spiky, rude, raw, ruthlessly funny. Tomlin is a counterculture comedy icon who’s rarely gotten her due. Despite amazing performances in film such as
Nashville, The Late Show, All of Me and I Heart Huckabees, she’s never won an Oscar. It’s possible Grandma is too modest a movie to really attract Academy attention. But it’s a worthy effort on her part. We should all be so lucky to have a dame like Lily Tomlin as our cranky, scrappy, deep-down loyal grandmother.

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