Grandmas: They spoil you with sweets, toys, hot chocolate and abortions. Academy Award nominee Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Sam Elliot and Academy Award winner Marcia Gay Harden star in Grandma.
Director – Paul Weitz
Screenplay – Paul Weitz
Producer – Andrew Miano, Paul Weitz, Paris Kasidokostas-Latsis & Terry Dougas
Rated R for language and some drug use
Still reeling over the death of her long-time lover and now getting over a breakup with her girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer), Elle Reid (Lily Tomlin) is given a much-needed pick-me-up visit from her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner). Unfortunately, the visit is only ’cause Sage needs bookoo bucks to abort her unwanted pregnancy, and is too afraid to approach her mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden) about her dilemma. Even more unfortunate is that her grandma is now flat broke, having paid off all her debts, and can’t afford the $600 needed for the procedure that Sage scheduled for later in the day.
So needing money in a hurry, Elle and Sage hit the road, visiting old friends and flames in unannounced fashion, and digging up buried secrets from the past in the process.
It’s been nearly 30 years since Lily Tomlin’s last leading role, and though she hasn’t disappeared entirely, pretty much all she’s done since then has ranged from extended cameos to supporting appearances. Now she has the center stage once again in the indie dramedy Grandma, playing an acerbic, social filter-less senior role that seems tailor-made for the veteran actress.
Writer/director Paul Weitz’s most lucrative success by far has been the American Pie franchise. He co-directed the first American Pie movie with his brother Chris and then served as an executive producer on the next three films. While most average moviegoers probably wouldn’t associate indie dramedy such as Grandma with a filmmaker connected to a dopey teen sex comedy franchise, Weitz has proven himself capable of handling similarly small, character-centered efforts like the wonderful About a Boy (which features one of Hugh Grant’s best performances) and Being Flynn.
He also did Little Fockers and Admission, but… yeah, whatever.
Any film that wants to bring up the other scarlet letter – abortion, not adultery – is choosing to wade in a touchy, red button topic that is sure to piss off one side of the aisle or the other, depending on the slant. Weitz doesn’t sermonize on that topic, nor the fifty million other themes ranging from politics, sex, burned bridges, feminism and family baggage. Sermonizing, though, is the least of his worries. Sadly, Grandma is a case of characters having a lot to say, but very little time to say it – 79 minutes to be exact and technically about 75 if you don’t count the closing credits.
I get that this is supposed to take place within the time frame of a day, but that’s not the issue. Elle comes into contact with all these past acquaintances and old lovers throughout the course of the film, yet the film doesn’t develop them enough. Save one key old flame midway through, they all come and go. Particularly disappointing is the deceased lover of Elle’s, Violet, who she brings up quite a bit. It’s a character device meant to humanize Elle’s crusty old bitch demeanor, yet Weitz’s script doesn’t provide enough insight into what made Violet so special. Not that we needed any obligatory flashback sequences or anything to help. Remember Good Will Hunting? Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s screenplay, and of course, Robin Williams’s heartfelt performance were able to paint a beautiful picture of the relationship Sean Maguire shared with his deceased wife. We never once saw Maguire’s wife, yet we still were so moved by what they had – the fond memories, the highs, lows, pains, joys and how even the little things made him crazy about her.
I don’t wanna get carried away with the film’s flaws ’cause despite the weak character development, the cast still manage to make this enjoyable, even if the film doesn’t end up packing as much a punch as it could’ve. In smaller roles, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer (for once, taking a break from the one-note, no more than five lines wife role like she had in Jurassic World and Ant-Man) and the late Elizabeth Pena (in her final film role) make do with the short amount of time they have onscreen.
Julia Garner doesn’t try to make her pregnant teenager Sage a champion for the cause. As naive of a teen that she is, I’m pretty sure no one on either side of the fence would wanna claim her as their champion, and Grandma Elle is quick to give her a good verbal slap upside the head for being so thickheaded about things. She schedules an abortion before securing the funds, and just assumes she can secure the funds with just hours remaining before the procedure. I guess in her mind, it’s as easy as ordering Pizza Hut. Don’t even get her grandma going on the fact that she thinks The Feminine Mystique refers to an X-Men character. It’s the kinda role that a poor casting choice could’ve made too clueless, but Garner brings a little more innocence to Sage that keeps her from becoming a basket case beyond the point of no return.
Easily scoring the strongest moments of the film, Sam Elliott gives one of the best performances of his entire career in just the handful of scenes that he appears in. As a former lover of Elle’s, Elliott conveys much pain and longing over what could’ve been with her and both he and Tomlin create such a great sense of past between their two characters in only the few minutes they share onscreen together. It’s a shame that as much depth given to their roles in those few moments couldn’t have been given to some of the other key characters, but Elliott nevertheless is absolutely terrific in an against-type role.
And then there’s Tomlin who, after years of only minor film roles, proves she hasn’t missed a step in that entire time. Even with maybe one or two moments where it feels a little too staged for her cranky shtick, Tomlin’s great and her performance transcends what weaknesses this film has.
Though funny and at times moving, Grandma ultimately isn’t as straight-talking edgy as it wants to be, nor is it as resonate or rich in character as it thinks it is. The answer as to why lies in Weitz’s script which throws a variety of characters, relationships and backstories with very little run time to flesh them all out properly. That said, leave it to Lily Tomlin and a talented supporting cast to save the day by elevating a mostly thin script. Even with the material not being able to match what she brings to the film, Tomlin nevertheless holds it together with her finest performance in decades.
I give Grandma a B- (★★★).