There’s a wealth of riches to be seen and enjoyed in the new adult comedy Grandma from writer/director Paul Weitz. Characters appear so well rounded so quickly it’s as if you already know them – or at least what you think you know of them – within seconds of meeting them. You could say that in the end it’s all down to performance – and that’s partially true; it’s an excellent cast – but in this case it’s really the writing that needs to be acknowledged.
Writer Weitz has said that the idea for Grandma was in his head for many years, bouncing around, essentially falling into place and subconsciously writing itself. But it was never fully together until he met Lily Tomlin, then everything clicked. In fact, the character driven outline was by that point so vivid in his mind, Weitz has said that all he had to do once meeting the famous comedienne and hearing her voice was to go to a coffee shop and write the whole thing down as if in dictation, longhand.
Acid-tongued lesbian poet and all-round academic, Elle Reid (Lilly Tomlin) is trying to cope with the death of her longtime partner. The relationship lasted thirty-eight years. One way that Elle handled the situation was by entering into another relationship with the much younger Olivia (Judy Greer), but after just four months, Elle breaks it off. “After thirty-eight years, you’re a footnote,” Elle tells Olivia.
Then Elle’s eighteen year-old grand daughter, Sage (Julia Garner) suddenly turns up on grandma’s doorstep and declares, “I’m pregnant”, adding, “I need six hundred and thirty dollars for an abortion.” It’s 9:05 in the morning. The clinic appointment is for 5:45 that afternoon and Sage doesn’t have a penny. Neither does grandma. With what little she had, Elle paid off all debts and created a wind chime out of her credit cards. When Elle asks Sage why she doesn’t just go to her mother, Sage replies, “She’d have a stroke, then she’d start strangling me.”
With reluctance, Elle agrees to help Sage find the money. They climb in to Elle’s classic Dodge and together spend the day driving around town, avoiding Sage’s mother and meeting up with Elle’s past acquaintances and loves, trying to raise the money before the car breaks down and to make the appointed time at the clinic.
The journey across town becomes a series of short, character revealing adventures as grandma and grand daughter drive from house to house hoping that old favors would be returned in the form of money and that between them they’ll eventually reach that six hundred dollar goal. First stop is the deadbeat boyfriend (Nat Wolf) who, no surprise, wants nothing to do with either Sage or her pregnancy, and even questions the validity of his involvement. “You sure it’s mine?” he asks. True to grandma’s way of handling things, she ends up beating him with a hockey stick, taking his last fifty dollars and stealing the bag of weed with papers and a lighter from his drawer. At least it’s a start.
The most effective of meetings occurs when grandma takes Sage to meet Karl (Sam Elliot), a man with a past and a deep association with Elle. Karl and Elle haven’t seen each other for over thirty years. When we first meet the grizzled cowboy, he’s what we initially expect when played by actor Elliot; solid, tough and sure of himself. “Sage,” he repeats with a smile after meeting the grand daughter for the first time. “Nice name. Pungent.” But as the scene continues, Elliot opens up. “It’s painful seeing you, Elle, ‘cause it makes me feel old,” he laments. The confrontation where the truth behind their history emerges is touching, but as things continue and Karl discovers the real reason behind the unexpected visit from grandma and grand daughter, the moment becomes heartbreaking and feels oh-so real. It could be Elliot’s finest big screen scene, ever.
Some may attack the film as pro-choice, but they’ll be missing the point. There’s more to Grandma than you might expect and it comes at you via an exploration of three generations. “Time passes. That’s for sure,” states an on-screen quote at the beginning, attributed to real-life poet Eileen Myles, and that’s what we see; time passing for three women from the same family who made or are making choices where our view of them may alter depending on the date on the calendar. Elle declared herself a lesbian years before society in general was accepting, her daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden) we discover was pregnant with Sage because of an unknown sperm donor, and now third generation Sage is wanting an abortion.
The scenes between Elle and Sage are constantly amusing as they drive around town, getting to know each other, revealing a little more of their characters with each mile covered. “Mom says you’re misanthropic,” Sage tells grandma, who sardonically replies, “That’s an understatement.” When grandma talks to her grand daughter regarding Betty Friedman’s classic The Feminine Mystique, Sage thinks she’s referring to the character from X-Men. But the best and most comical payoff of all occurs not between Elle and Sage but between Elle and a little girl who innocently sits with her mother outside in the parking lot of the clinic telling patients to turn away, say no to an abortion and have the child. With a warm and somewhat affectionate smile, Elle kneels before the child, pauses, then says, “There’s a world out there that’s not filled with hate and unhappiness.” The reaction of the child is priceless.
What will stick in your mind more than anything is Lilly Tomlin, and with good reason; her dry, deadpan delivery will make you laugh as she reflects on the failures and successes of Elle’s life but she can also leave you fatigued with her belligerency, her honesty and her spot on observations. And that sums up Grandma in general. Any film that explores the human condition and does it as entertainingly as it does here deserves attention.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 82 Minutes Overall Rating: (8 out of 10)