dir. Chris Weitz
written by: Chris Weitz
starring: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Sam Elliott, Laverne Cox, Elizabeth Pena
3.25 out of 4 stars
News from Sundance this past year was highly promising. As a US film festival, the heavily English language slate heavily feeds into late summer and autumn ticket sales. There are unfortunately films like The Witch that take forever to distribute, but notable films like Precious and Little Miss Sunshine blossomed out of Sundance to great success. This year’s lineup has proven particularly reliable with standouts such as Diary of a Teenage Girl and Sleeping with Other People already reviewed highly favorable by yours truly. The most exciting news for me this year was Grandma, a rare starring role for Lily Tomlin.
Chris Weitz, writer and director of Grandma (a recurring theme in Sundance) has a bizarre filmography. Oscar nominated for adapting About a Boy into a movie (not the terrible TV show) and credited with Antz and American Pie, he has a berth of comedic success with little stylistic similarity. Grandma has a plot speaking of promise. A road trip comedy by structure, Sage (Julia Garner) visits her estranged grandmother Elle (Lily Tomlin) with news of an unwanted pregnancy. Feminist since the onset, Elle is set to fulfill her granddaughter’s choice and find her money for the abortion. Credit card windchime behind them, Elle hits up everyone who owes her a favor for abortion funds. Comedic in nature, these insights into Elle’s storied personal relationships culminates with her familial turmoil, daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden) quite the offspring in a pink power suit on her treadmill desk.
The writing is equal parts hilarious and fulfilling. Elle’s entire history is greeted between interactions with a transsexual friend with a debt (Laverne Cox, happy to see her in film), recent ex (Judy Greer), supposed friend with a hankering for first editions (Elizabeth Pena), a former male flame (Sam Elliott, the best acted of the bunch with a mildly hateable character), and finally the mother of all issues, her daughter. Excellent insults fly from the anger strewn bunch, and the film flows in an episodic continuation. Our main characters, Elle and Sage, are presented with the most developed personalities, as would be expected with the single scenes for most of the rest of the cast.
Elle’s daughter Judy is played as a high power business woman with no exceptional marks, Harden is given little time and little to build on. She is overbearing and mildly terrifying, even to the hardened Elle. Granddaughter Sage possesses the meatier role. Following behind her grandmother for the entire movie, Sage comes off as overly meek in the beginning of the film. Possibly from a failure of proper introduction, we come to see Sage’s timid demeanor grown from following her authoritative upbringing. For a young woman unable to get a word in edgewise, Sage grows during the film. Julia Garner, possessing little other filmography, impressive on a sliding scale through the movie. Not always sure of herself, neither the character nor the actress, one must sympathize with a performance surrounded by so much greatness.
Lily Tomlin, of course, is the clear standout of the bunch. In a manner unlike any other actress, Tomlin is feisty and vulgar, unchanged since the 70s. One of the longest out actresses in Hollywood, she lives this role. Recently broken hearted, Elle possesses a cynicism that Tomlin exudes, playing pitch perfect with every breath. So rarely given leading roles, or at least so rarely taking roles in film, she owns the film. The focus remains on this treasure of American comedy, and the performance is heart breaking, as one can feel her loneliness during the journey. So many friends known and a life lived per her rules, Elle feels lived in.
As expected, the film was hilarious, but it possessed more heart than anticipated. Acerbic in nature (ads throw that word around everywhere with this one), one doesn’t expect to form a bond with Grandma, but Tomlin proves irresistible. Taking such an unfunny subject as abortion and turning it into a bizarrely warm roadtrip movie seemed unlikely, but in the practiced hands of Weitz and the always brilliant Tomlin, it works in ways wholly unexpected.