Though never too far away from our cinema or TV screens, Lily Tomlin hasn’t taken a lead role in a film since 1988’s Big Business. In Paul Weitz’s Grandma, Tomlin is gifted a role that isn’t a million miles away from her own experience. If the part of Elle Reid wasn’t written for Tomlin, it was some kind of serendipity, because Tomlin’s performance is one of just a few elements that keeps Grandma from disappearing from the mind soon after it ends.”
Grandma is defined by its title character, Tomlin’s retired academic and poet, who starts the film by breaking up with her current girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer, who sadly never says “Say goodbye to these”, Arrested Development fans). This is but the first in a series of incidents that come, one after another, to make for a very singular day for Elle. No sooner has Olivia left, but Elle’s granddaughter Sage arrives. Sage is played by Julia Garner, delivering a restrained turn in a role that could so easily have turned quite shrill. Inheriting a certain portion of her grandmother’s bluntness, she confesses she’s pregnant and needs help funding a termination. Grandma doesn’t lack for drama, but it lacks a cohesive structure to keep it grounded. Once Sage makes her announcement, she and Elle are off in search of debtors and friends who might help them cobble the funds together. Thus begins a sorely episodic jaunt all over Los Angeles, with visits lined up one after another. The film is divided into chapters, each with their own title card. The film is episodic enough; the title cards just make it official. As the pair hop from encounter to encounter, some of which are more helpful than others, one can’t help but wish there was something a bit more concrete holding it all together. The handheld camerawork only adds to the feeling the whole film could drift away.
They travel in Elle’s late partner Vi’s vintage car, which rattles and splutters along the sunshiny LA byways. The car serves as both a source of laughs (via engine troubles) and a memory. Throughout, Grandma mingles lumps in the throat in with its guffaws. It’s a tricky balancing act, but Weitz succeeds a little too well. Neither drama nor comedy wins outright; they seem to cancel each other out. We laugh at Elle’s rationales for cutting up her credit card, but this is an emergency where it could make a difference. The scramble for money is the epitome of Weitz’s approach; it’s both an opportunity for laughs and a melancholy commentary. Most of the laughs come courtesy of Tomlin’s delivery of the profanity-peppered dialogue. Elle takes no prisoners; she’s seen and experienced enough to know better than to tolerate younger nonsense, as evidenced by an early encounter with Sage’s boyfriend (Nat Wolff). The poor chap never knew what hit him. Tomlin is unapologetically brilliant as this justified sourpuss, and her rapport with Garner is just the right blend of tough n’ tender. We want this granny in our corner.
Even if the events of Grandma don’t quite gel, it is at least peppered with great individual moments. All too brief appearances by the likes of Laverne Cox, Marcia Gay Harden and the late lamented Elizabeth Peña add to the flavour, while a meeting between Elle and her ex Karl (Sam Elliott) is a beautifully-crafted nugget of drama, with pasts teased out and skeletons unearthed. Alas, Elle and Sage have other places to me, meaning that the great moments don’t last. Even if it’s fleet-footed, at least Grandma isn’t preachy, treating its central premise with the respect and practicality it deserves. The cast make it, but Grandma’s easy-going nature is both blessing and curse.