By Hans Pedersen, September 2015 Issue.
Lily Tomlin turns in an Oscar-worthy performance as pissed-off lesbian grandma Elle Reid in Grandma, which hit theatres Aug. 28.
While this delightfully funny film is likely to elicit cackles of laughter, it also delivers an emotional punch.
When her granddaughter shows up at her uniquely decorated home in the opening scenes, it’s clear from the start that Elle is truly an angry senior citizen. Her quips are cutting and her survival skills are shrewd, but her outlook has turned dour. Nobody could have played the role better than Tomlin.
Her teenage granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner from TV’s “The Americans”), confesses that she’s pregnant. She’s afraid to tell her high-strung mom, and admits to grandma that she’s made an appointment to have an abortion at the end of the day. The guy who got her pregnant has stood her up, and she’s asking her broke grandmother for several hundred dollars for the procedure.
Since she’s nearing the end of her first trimester and no other clinics are nearby, Julia and Elle decide to race against the clock and try to raise the money in time for her appointment.
To borrow cash and collect old debts, the pair hit the road in Elle’s clunky 1955 Dodge Royal, encountering characters from this angry woman’s past.
Lightning-hot Laverne Cox is luminous as a friend who borrowed money to pay for implants. The late Elizabeth Pena plays a testy store clerk who’s unwilling to fork over money for some first-edition books that Elle treats like treasures. And Judy Greer is Elle’s younger ex-girlfriend, Olivia, who gets dumped in the opening scenes and later returns to duke it out. But Elle keeps pushing her away, clinging to the memory of a lover who died ages earlier.
More ghosts from the past are unveiled as the pair roll into people’s lives. Sam Elliot turns up as an ex-lover of Elle’s, and their discussion peels away the layers in a new complex relationship from her rich life.
But the ultimate revelation is the neurotic mother, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), who has all of Elle’s rage and feistiness, but none of her cool attitude or down-to-earth quirks.
Harden makes her entrance in the third act and bumps the already terrific film up yet another notch. This career-minded mom with a treadmill in her office is so tightly wound she could pop at any moment (it’s clear that is was not easy being the daughter of Elle Reid).
Character-driven stories like this don’t emerge every day, and Paul Weitz has assembled a dramedy that really clicks. The story develops in unexpected ways, and even when we seem to delve into familiar territory, like a protest scene at the abortion clinic, Weitz takes detours into new vistas.
It’s the first time since Big Business (1988) that Tomlin has played the lead role in a movie, which frankly seems impossible given the resume of this brilliant actress and comedian. She has performed her own one-woman show for years, currently co-stars with Jane Fonda in the Netflix Original Series “Grace and Frankie” and played major roles in everything from TV’s “Murphy Brown” to I Heart Huckabees.
The 1955 Dodge Royal that Elle drives around is reportedly Tomlin’s own vehicle – she told USA Today she purchased it four decades ago, knowing it would come in handy. It’s just one example of the rich production design, with elaborately detailed sets and vibrant outdoor locations that enhance the realism of the film. It’s the perfect setting for such standout performances.
About the time she purchased that Dodge Royal, Tomlin played a gospel-singing mom in Robert Altman’s Nashville, which earned her a best supporting actress nomination. Here’s hoping this fresh portrayal will peak the Academy’s interest once again, but Harden and other actors in the film also deserve consideration for their outstanding work, too.
It’s hard to find fault here: Grandma boasts a talented cast of women, gorgeous cinematography and a well-written script. It may not have the knock-em-dead ending of some indies or blockbusters, but the story wraps up with a sweet and moody coda.
Weitz delivers a spot-on balance of comedy and drama with a compelling, original story and rich characters who come to life, thanks to a knock-out group of performers.