Film Review: Grandma

What should have been a delightfully smart, unapologetially feminist vehicle for Lily Tomlin has a certain telling, near-antiseptic emptiness, largely due to a shallow script.
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Writer-director Paul Weitz’s Grandma deserves credit for its unblinking focus on a senior citizen, something that is rare these days. In its determined, unusually feminist purview, in which titles and writers like The Feminine Mystique and Simone de Beauvoir are bandied about, the film is a world apart from the crude frat-boy antics of Weitz's American Pie series; this quirky yet essentially grave movie at times feels like an atonement on the part of a filmmaker wanting to get seriously in touch with his feminine side. Unfortunately, Weitz doesn't seem to have a clue about how to pull off all this low-key, would-be-highbrow stuff, and the result is an effort more admirable than truly interesting or emotionally profound.

The rather too-tidy, all-in-one-day set-up posits Lily Tomlin as Elle Reid, a misanthropic lesbian poetess and unregenerate Bohemian, estranged from her bossy, successful lawyer daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden). One day, her far more compatible granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) pops up in her picturesquely book-filled aerie, needing money for an abortion she is too scared to tell Judy about. The problem is that Elle herself is nearly broke and has also cut up her credit cards in a self-righteous fit against constantly being in debt. The two set out on a mission to scrape up the nearly $400 needed for Olivia's operation, which means calling up a lot of people from Elle's decidedly combative past.

Tomlin, who has given us all so much perceptive pleasure for decades, seems in fighting form and quite ready to tackle a rarity in her career: a juicy, mainstage title role sans any formidable co-stars (as in the past, John Travolta, Bette Midler, Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, Steve Martin and that roiling gallery of players in Nashville) to share billing and screen time with. Elle is rather facilely written to be obviously quicker, smarter and more complex than anyone else in the movie, but the very thin and shallow script lets Tomlin down, requiring her to pluck one constant emotional string of not-always-convincing unreasonable angriness, and too often you can sense the actress manically plying whatever resources of improv and ad-libbing she can to create some characterizational texture here.

Weitz relies far too much on the star's own familiar, sometimes cantankerous persona, and our accumulated good will towards her, in lieu of giving her something really meaty and detailed she can sink those formidable teeth into. Elle is always ranting about the feminism of her good old days and the dearth of it now, and you sort of wish Weitz had just let Tomlin take over long enough to write and deliver one solid monologue about this which could have been convincing rather than merely confrontational. As her often unwillingly captive audience, Garner spends a lot of screen time with her, but, as gratingly played, the frizzy-haired character of Sage (who thinks Feminine Mystique is an X-Men character) is just callowly annoying.

Throughout this picaresque film, there are numerous fond mentions of Violet, Elle's former dead lover, who seems to have been an African-American paragon of smarts and sweetness, beloved by all who knew her, unlike her irrepressibly feisty surviving partner, whom she was somewhat able to tame into civility. The film might well have benefited from some footage with her, showing Elle in happier, partnered days, which could have added some much-needed resonance and scope.

The characters Elle and Sage go begging to are random indeed, and include Sage's creep of a boyfriend (Nat Wolff), who doesn't want to accept any responsibility of parenthood, and of whom Elle makes short work, with a hockey stick to the groin. Then there's a very weirdly mannered Sam Elliott as Karl, a grizzled old guy who was a rare but significant heterosexual involvement for Elle; tattoo artist Deathy (Laverne Cox, more attitudinous than actress), who irritatingly doesn't have the $400 she owes Elle but does give her a circle on her arm; the talented, sadly now dead Elizabeth Peña, wasted as the owner of a feminist cafe, and Elle's much younger ex-girlfriend Olivia (an unsatisfyingly pallid Judy Greer), rightfully pissed off at having been so unceremoniously dumped, largely due to their embarrassing-to-Elle age difference. It's rather sad to see the gifted John Cho, a rare Asian actor who starred in his own TV series, “Selfie,” demoted to the small role of a barista upon whom Elle wreaks her self-righteous fury, his establishment having replaced a former free women's clinic.

Every now and then Weitz gets off some good ones, as in a fight between Elle and Olivia in which such epithets as "solipsist," "ingénue," "writer-in-residence" and "You're a footnote!" get lobbed. (And, yes, this is one more movie featuring a writer whom you never see writing, Elle being blocked by Violet's death and her own spiritual inertia.) Judy Geeson, that Julie Christie clone of the 1960s in films like To Sir, With Love, does appear as a rabid fan of Elle’s and we are briefly treated to some of the very fancy verse which made her reputation, especially among feminists. Harden, a fine character actress who suffers from a dearth of good material, is first spotted in her incessantly buzzing office while striding what she calls her "treadmill desk." "That's redundant," Elle observes. The wit is but a smattering, and the screenplay could have used more layers.

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