Director: Paul Weitz
Stars: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner
3 (out of 5) Globes
In the first five minutes of “Grandma” we’re introduced to a) a lesbian poet (Lily Tomlin) who b) has just dumped her much younger girlfriend (Judy Greer), and is then c) visited by her granddaughter (Julia Garner), who needs her help procuring a hasty abortion. It’s very much a film of 2015 and very much for a certain audience, who, unlike other audiences, will not immediately recoil from that casually progressive three-punch hit.
To other viewers, though — those weary of an indie market oversaturated with films that scream “Sundance-y” — the real offense lies elsewhere. This is a very programmatic film, not so much in its politics as in filmmaker Paul Weitz’s sometimes paint-by-numbers script. Even with Tomlin getting a lead role, it can be easy to resist “Grandma,” which is alternately foul-mouthed and heartfelt, often right on the beat. It’s also easy to give in as it putters along and, like any road trip movie — even one, like this, set entirely in the diverse confines of Los Angeles — gains in depth and nuance as it goes along.
The first half offers a fairly routine, even comfort food-y, mix of good vibes and bad, with Tomlin’s Ellie Reid — still renowned but grouchily wrestling with obsolescence — blowing up on friends and strangers alike for our delectation, including a coffeeshop matron (Elizabeth Pena) and a lowly clerk (Jon Chu) at another, separate coffeeshop. Ellie hasn’t written a thing in ages and is flat-out broke after whimsically paying off all of her substantial debt, meaning she can’t even pay the relatively meager sum to take care of Garner’s Sage’s problem. This means hobnobbing with people she’s mostly cut from her life, if not cut entirely, including her workaholic, business shark daughter (Marcia Gay Harden), who chastises her own daughter for not coming to her first while strutting on a treadmill desk.
The only encounter that has any real power is the one with Karl, one of Ellie’s old flames, and the one that she not only left for another woman but whose pregnancy she terminated without telling him. He’s played by Sam Elliott, an actor traditionally used as the dictionary image of testosterone. That’s how he first comes off once Ellie and Sage arrive, unannounced, at his L.A. estate, oozing his twangy, smirking charm as he offers them fresh-out-of-the-boiler corn and flirts with his old gal pal. His mood changes, first subtly, then sharply, as old resentments boil to the surface and scabbed-over pain bleeds anew. And we get to watch a legend often reduced to a type — or allowed, in films like “The Big Lebowski,” to play with that type — turn human and raw, even selfish and flighty.
It’s a great scene in a movie that doesn’t always deserve it. And once it arrives it colors everything that comes after. The second half of the movie jerks a few tears, but it’s mostly content to merely observe, warts and all, a complex lead, filled with contradictions and self-hatred and self-love, who is selfish with certain people and selfless with others. Tomlin doesn’t always get to play serious, and she’s mostly having fun in “Grandma.” But it’s an effortless, lived-in turn, one that drags us through the predictable turns of Weitz’s screenplay. The Elliott centerpiece aside, the movie is almost a blueprint, knowing that Tomlin will fill in the rest simply by being there and doing what she does.