Lily Tomlin portrays the titular character in Grandma, and she is awesome incarnate.
The film resembles a sitcom, setting up a daylong journey in which Elle Reid (Tomlin) drives around Los Angeles, visiting old friends and enemies as she tries to cobble together enough money so that her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) can get an abortion. It’s episodic in the extreme, allowing for a plethora of talented players to enliven scenes and then disappear neatly.
Tomlin delivers her acerbic lines with great comic timing, and she exudes so much confidence and charisma that it’s a pleasure to sit back and watch her work her magic, snapping out her pithy dialogue with elan and rescuing jokes that might otherwise fall flat with a wry expression on her lips — as in, “can you believe this?” — or a completely natural-looking eye-roll. It’s an entirely compelling performance all on its own, and makes Grandma a must-watch for that reason alone.
Fortunately for the film, there’s more to it than Tomlin. Writer/director Paul Weitz mixes the comic bits with increasing doses of nuanced drama. Gradually it adds up to a portrait of a remarkable woman who has dealt with hardship, sadness and tragedy (some of it of her own making) yet remains resilient, determined to make the most of whatever situation she finds herself in. She has the self-knowledge to recognize the problems and heartaches she has caused others, while also acknowledging that changing lifelong habits and tendencies is a long and arduous process that may not always be successful.
Grandma reminded me of A Better Life, also set in Los Angeles, which also focused on a determined individual who tries to make things better for his family while knowing that he himself sometimes created problems for them. The latter film was directed by Chris Weitz, and it’s hard to fathom that, once upon a time, the two brothers made American Pie. Since then, they’ve each carved out distinctive careers, producing flavorful films that often juggle together comedy with drama.
With this film, Paul Weitz returns to the high-water marks he previously enjoyed with About a Boy (2002, co-directed with his brother) and In Good Company (2004, his solo debut). Grandma is a very funny film, but it also features several quietly-handled, searingly dramatic scenes that make the heart skip a beat. (Credit to be shared with Judy Greer, Sam Elliott, and Marcia Gay Harden.) It’s a lovely combination that never overstays its welcome.
The film opens today at Landmark’s The Magnolia and Cinemark West Plano.