Grandma is indeed a tearjerker, but one free of the overwrought sentimentality that bogs down other entries in the genre. Structured like an addictive novella, the premise is quickly established and we’re on our way. At a brisk 75 minutes, there is little time for narrative hesitation. The film opens with an intensely emotional break-up, as Elle (Lily Tomlin) unceremoniously dumps her much younger girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer) claiming that their relationship has meant nothing. Soon after, Elle’s granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner) shows up asking for $600 to terminate an accidental pregnancy. It’s going to be one hell of a day, as all of this transpires before breakfast.
Obviously, Elle doesn’t have $600 and being the supportive, yet miserable old soul that she is, the journey to find the money begins. The newest film from writer-director Paul Weitz (American Pie, American Dreamz) has the effect of a thoughtful Oscar caliber drama with the whimsical approach of quirky indie comedy. Each character is distinct and unapologetically real.
Paul Weitz has made two intelligent and heartfelt comedies which examine 20-something males who seem their own worst enemies: About A Boy and In Good Company. Both are admittedly imperfect films, however rich with charming nuances and a handful of powerful performances.In Grandma, Weitz directs his cast, which include the brilliant Marcia Gay Harden, to equally resonant performances. Weitz and company elevate this charming, engrossing material beyond what could have been fodder for some paint-by-numbers sitcom. It’s not the premise, but the delivery which deserves attention.
Tomlin is poignant and funny, playing this brutally honest, foul mouthed Grandma within an inch of her life. Such a strong dramatic presence that Tomlin’s whip-fast comedic beats caught me off guard, like hilarious sucker punches. And then it happened again, and again. Over and over, I remarked to myself: “Oh yes, Lily Tomlin really is a comedic genius.”
In addition to his more intelligent dramedies, Weitz is best known as the director of American Pie, a monumental financial success which spawned an untold number of inferior sequels. Grandma is more of the former than the latter, although there is a little of the lowest common denominator humour on display. Namely, a piece of comedic violence involving her granddaughter’s boyfriend, which retreads territory already mined by Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. A detour involving an old flame played by Sam Elliot is another less successful episode.
Elle will sustain as many injuries as she inflicts, a painful karmic reminder that despite fumbling good intentions, you cannot go around treating everyone like crap. Elle is a famous poet, who made a living from her writing and yes, her genius. The notion that being a genius excuses bad behavior has been explored by Weitz in the past in the film, Being Flynn. With Tomlin’s performance, we’re living along side Elle for the entirety of this intense day, and thus, the theme is given a superior examination. Grandma is a character study, whereas Being Flynn is a flakey redemption drama. Weitz is not interested in redeeming Elle. He just wants us to get to know her.
This is a film without heroes and villains. Instead, it simply features flawed humans moving uneasily through an equally flawed world. Even the sequence involving a hateful mother-daughter team of abortion protesters concludes in an unexpectedly prompt fashion. The subject of abortion is handled in a refreshingly apolitical fashion. Even the lone character in the film who is against the procedure, an aging male, has deeply personal reasons behind this stance. We understand, though perhaps we do not excuse.
If you’ve ever seen Robert Altman’s Nashville, you’re aware of the power Lily Tomlin can wield. In that film, Tomlin portrays a housewife wooed by a famous country musician, played by Keith Carradine. During a night club performance, Carradine’s character performs a song which several of the high profile women in the room believe is secretly dedicated to them. One by one, the faces of each woman fall with disappointment when they realize Carradine is instead singing to Tomlin, whose silent reaction is one of the finest moments in cinema.
Grandma contains several moments that evoke memory of Tomlin’s role in Nashville. Her characters manage to simultaneously feel defiantly tough and painfully vulnerable, contradictions which breathe fascinating life into her roles. If I have made Grandma sound anything but hilarious, I would like to clarify. Tomlin doesn’t want our pity, and as a result, Elle earns our respect. We laugh with Elle because we like her. The fact that Elle is quick witted and smart doesn’t hurt either.
Grandma finds a fantastic wealth of humour in unpretentious and unexpected places.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer, who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine, The Uniter and ShowbizMonkeys.com. You can find Tony on Twitter: twitter.com/thetonyhinds