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What a Sharp Wit You have

Sony Pictures Classics
 79 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Paul Weitz 
Starring: Lily Tomlin, Marcia Gay Harden, Sam Elliott

When people think of the best older American actresses today, the name of Lily Tomlin rarely gets mentioned. In part, that’s because she makes relatively few movies. In addition, she’s usually thought of as a comic actress; some people can’t get past her recurring role as Ernestine, the telephone operator on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In nearly 50 years ago. But in the right role, as in her first movie, Robert Altman’s Nashville, she can be magnificent. And now at long last, another writer/director, Paul Weitz, has given her an equally good role in Grandma that’s likely to get her a second Oscar nomination, some 40 years after her first for Nashville.


Grandma is, not surprisingly, about a grandmother, and, equally non-surprisingly, with Tomlin playing the role, Elle Reid is a most unconventional grandmother. She’s a lesbian feminist poet, a minor celebrity back in the day whose books are now relegated deep in the back stacks at independent bookstores. Her longtime companion Violet died a couple of years back, and Elle has reacted by trying to erect an emotional fence to keep out the entire world. She did allow herself to spend a couple of months with Olivia (Judy Greer), a younger woman who went from ardent fan to lover. As the movie starts, however, Elle cruelly kicks Olivia out, telling her their affair meant nothing.


Like all armor, however, Elle’s defenses have a chink in them, in this case her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner), who arrives as Olivia leaves. Sage is pregnant and needs money for an abortion. She also feels the only person she can approach for help is Elle. Unfortunately, Elle has almost no cash, and she cut up her credit cards once she got them paid off. Rather than go to Sage’s mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), a workaholic lawyer, for help, Elle spends most of the day going around to everyone Elle can think of to try to raise the money.


The most memorable of these encounters is with Karl (Sam Elliott), a well-to-do old friend from Lily’s younger days. The screenplay lets this scene play out at length, gradually revealing the nature of Elle and Karl’s relationship, which left emotional scars on both of them. It’s a great performance by Elliott, an actor who often seems to play the same laconic character time after time. But it’s only one of several scenes in Grandma in which Tomlin’s talented supporting cast work off her well and bring out the best in her performance.


What becomes quickly apparent during the course of Grandma is that Elle is not a stereotypical dispenser of wisdom for the younger generation. True, she calls Sage on the carpet and rightly castigates her jerk of a boyfriend (Nat Wolff), but she’s also badly out of touch in a number of ways with modern life (she’s got no idea how little her treasured collection of feminist first editions is actually worth). And she’s incredibly stubborn in her dealings with everyone except for Sage, which makes her efforts to raise money more difficult.


Grandma is structured as a series of chapters, each one detailing an encounter Elle has during the course of the day. And, as the movie progresses, the audience notices a pattern emerge in these encounters. Each scene more or less begins by confirming our understanding of Elle’s character to that point, but, as it continues, we learn that our perceptions weren’t fully accurate. Ironically, Elle winds up becoming both better and worse of a person than we first imagined. She’s done some bad things in her life and hasn’t been the best of mothers or friends, but she also is doggedly determined to see things through, especially where Sage is concerned. Tomlin plays the role to the hilt, often wearing her emotions on her sleeve and letting both her defiance and her world-weariness (and recognition of past errors) show.


Weitz has structured the script so that the movie feels biographical, incorporating details from Tomlin’s own life. Even the 1950’s car that Elle pulls out of storage to take herself and Sage around town is an actual car owned by Tomlin and one that’s far from a vintage classic. That comfortable fit for Tomlin may have been the catalyst for her performance.


An intriguing sideline in Grandma is its stance regarding abortion. Not surprisingly, the movie is strongly pro-choice, but it goes beyond that. In most other movies about pregnant teenagers, the teen anguishes a great deal before making a final decision. Here, once Elle gets the sense that Sage has made up her mind, she’s completely supportive, and Judy has even fewer qualms about it. However, abortion, even a first trimester abortion as occurs here, is not portrayed as being the equivalent of getting one’s ears pierced. The movie makes it clear what the physical and emotional costs can be. Even though the one truly buffoonish character in the film is the pro-life mother who pickets the abortion clinic, Grandma is surprisingly even-handed (another character’s pro-life position is portrayed sympathetically).


Grandma is about as short a feature film as I can remember in recent years, other than a couple of disastrous movies that had obviously been severely edited down due to script problems. Unlike those debacles, Grandma manages to tell its entire story in 80 minutes and create one of the most fully realized characters around. The movie has a little bit of sitcommish humor (the car predictably breaks down, forcing Elle and Sage to scramble for a ride), but overall it keeps its focus on Elle. And, as the movie goes on, the character becomes more and more original and memorable. So too is Tomlin’s performance memorable, one that’s likely to earn her a trip to the Oscar ceremonies next year. Elle and Tomlin are truly originals.

Read other reviews of Grandma:


Grandma (2015) on IMDb