by David Robinson, Movie reviewer
Now available on DVD, “Grandma” stars Lily Tomlin in the title role, and she carries the movie. Despite a solid supporting cast that includes Marcia Gay Harden and Sam Elliot, Tomlin dominates the action and the screen, appearing in every scene. Writer/director Paul Weitz gives her most of the good lines, and she delivers a rounded performance, suggesting the pain that lurks just under her smart aleck, profanity laden dialogue. If the film has a weakness — it does — it’s the corollary to this strength: the other characters recede a little too far into the background.
Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a gay poet and ex-professor who has lost both her longtime companion, Violet, and broken up with a more recent, much younger woman friend, Olivia (Judy Greer). When her teenage granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner) shows up at her door one morning to ask her for some money, Elle greets her warmly. But when it turns out she needs the cash for an abortion, Grandma chews her out, waving her hand at the mobile of destroyed credit cards that hangs on her porch and telling Sage she’s broke.
Since the abortion is scheduled for late that same afternoon, the two have to scare up $630 fast. They set out in Elle’s ancient Dodge Royal, the film becoming something of a buddy movie/road trip around the L.A. environs. Weitz slips in little “chapter headings” — e.g. “ink” for a visit to a tattoo parlor — to introduce each encounter with a potential source of funds. These include Sage’s jerk of a boyfriend, Cam (Nat Wolff), friends from the feminist movement, Elle’s ex-husband, Karl (Elliot), and finally, in desperation, Sage’s hard-charging business woman mother, played deftly by Harden.
In most scenes, Elle’s anger explodes as people stiff her requests. Weitz has written some lively comic lines for Tomlin, who delivers them with smoldering gusto. (One of the funniest moments comes when she literally takes the wood to the obnoxious Cam.) Her extended conversation with Karl devolves into a fight and reveals something of Elle’s own past and some of the sources of her anger. Tomlin and Elliot play off each other authentically here, the mixture of affection and upset between aging ex-spouses ringing true.
Not all of the other encounters do, though, and Weitz has some problems with comic pacing and momentum. As Sage, Garner is a bit monotonous, lacking the affect that her waif-like character should be showing in her situation. Given the charisma of the wisecracking Elle — and Tomlin’s nuanced development of her — other characters’ relatively brief appearances leave too little room for them as other than sounding boards or foils for her.
All that said, “Grandma” is a delightful film to watch and listen to, unless you are offended by profanity rather than amused by it as I and my fellow elders were. At 75, Tomlin is still a master of the comic delivery that she has been developing since 1970 in “Laugh-In.” In an somewhat uneven movie, she’s a constant pleasure to watch.