Starring Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Laverne Cox, Sam Elliott
Twenty Seven years since Lily Tomlin has taken a lead role in a film. The one time Oscar nominee (Nashville) has a career spanning back to the early 70’s. Now nearly eighty, her latest might earn her a second nomination. She is the title role in Paul Weitz (About a Boy) latest which feels like a poetic love letter to Tomlin and all she stands for. There are films and then there are performance vehicles, Grandma is the latter, as Tomlin owns each and every scene whether she is giving her granddaughter advice or stirring up the past with old friends. “I like being old, young people are stupid,” her character says when reminded of her age. Appealing to the liberal agenda with topics on homosexuality, abortion, and feminism, that shouldn’t detour anyone from enjoying this knockout performance.
In her prime Elle Reid (Tomlin) was a well known poet, but following the death of her beloved Lily, bitterness has become a shield to anyone trying to get close to her. Olivia (Greer) is the latest girlfriend she has shown the door; “put your key on the table and show yourself out,” she says ending the relationship. What softer side she has is reserved for granddaughter Sage (Garner), who just arrived needing money for an abortion. Since her credit cards now hang from the porch as a wind chime, Elle bounces around town in Lily’s 1955 Dodge Royal, trying to scrounge up enough money for Sage to make the 5:45pm appointment. Telling Sage’s mother is the last resort.
Tomlin is the only reason to see it, and that’s good enough.
Weitz’s script presents the film in chapters, each titled with a single word, i.e. “Ink”, “Orge”. The chapters are like beautifully, vulgar, prickly, poetry that represent anger and loss. As Elle helps Sage make decisions for her future, she wades through the past to get there. Tomlin has always been great in bitter roles and here she is let loose to curse, spew and even fight, getting a black eye in one scene. Sometimes when Elle is hockey-sticking the boy who got her granddaughter pregnant or picking a fight with her ex in a café, it feels like grandstanding. Yet the turmoil is balanced with the softer side of a woman trying to make up for the mistakes of her past. “I’ll just have to be a better Grandmother,” she responds when her own motherhood is called into question.
Sam Elliott (The Contender, I’ll See You in My Dreams) delivers quite the emotional sequence opposite Tomlin, only to be topped by Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden’s appearance as Sage’s mother. “I have been afraid of your mother since she was five years old”, Elle says building up this tyrannical character saved until the end. Weitz continually sacrifices the films structure to allow Tomlin more scene chewing, and if she wasn’t so good, this would be a bigger problem. The thing is, you will never remember Grandma as that film about abortion or dealing with lost love, Tomlin is the only reason to see it, and that’s good enough.
Tomlin delivers the summer’s only Oscar worthy female performance.