October 02 — October 08
Unless otherwise noted, films begin on Friday and run through the next Thursday.
It’s unfortunate that today’s younger film fans might not have much first-hand knowledge of Lily Tomlin, whose mixture of wry observation, intelligence, sharp wit, surprising but honest tenderness, and goofy charm have captivated older generations for years. Millennials might know Tomlin by reputation: for her work for directors Robert Altman (Nashville) and David O. Russell (Flirting With Disaster); for that infamous shouting match with Russell on the set of I [Heart] Huckabees, captured for YouTube posterity; and for her bizarre romantic pairing with John Travolta in the camp classic Moment by Moment. Among the younger generations, probably more are aware of Tomlin’s homosexuality than her inspired comic work on the TV series Laugh-In or her one-woman Broadway show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. That’s too bad, because Tomlin’s a genuine treasure. And despite a decades-long career, she remains timeless: her acerbic humor, sensitivity, and genuine affection for goofballs, weirdos, and eccentrics of all types (not just the ones she plays) ought to resonate with younger viewers just as much as it does with her older fans. With Grandma, Tomlin might have her best cinematic showcase yet—a movie that not only displays her full comedic and dramatic range, but celebrates the Tomlin persona, that slightly askew, offbeat perspective on modern life, relationships, love, and friendship that’s unique to her. If this had been made early in her career, it’d be called a “star-making” vehicle. As it is, Grandma, deftly directed by writer-director Paul Weitz, is a wonderful reminder of how great Tomlin has always been. She plays Elle Reid, a cranky, mercurial professor-poet whose life has been dedicated to bucking the system. When we meet her, she’s breaking up with her latest fling, a much younger student named Olivia (Judy Greer). Elle/Tomlin is rough, brutally honest, seemingly possessing a heart of stone. But when she’s alone, her depth of feeling is revealed, and we see the chasm between the emotional armor she’s created and the vulnerable, needier human being within. This is the key to many of Tomlin’s characters: sharp-tongued or scatterbrained, ditzy or self-absorbed, they’re often initially off-putting—until we get a glimpse of lonely, sensitive person hiding behind the mask. Tomlin’s true talent has always been reconciling the abrasive surface with the likeable, introverted soul it conceals, and making audiences believe these are facets of the same person rather than a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation. The episodic “plot” of Grandma allows Tomlin to pull off this trick repeatedly, and always to astonishing effect. Elle is visited by her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner), who’s pregnant and needs money—fast—for an abortion. Alienated from her mother, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), and deserted by her boyfriend, Sage reluctantly turns to Grandma, the one person she expects won’t judge her. Elle is sympathetic but penniless (she cut up all her credit cards and made wind chimes out of them). So the two embark on a day-long journey to borrow cash from various friends, acquaintances, and ex-lovers of Elle. Through this series of terrifically acted scenes, we get a fuller picture of Elle herself: not just her past choices in life, but her beliefs, worldview, disappointments, and regrets. One of the more colorful characters we meet is a transgender tattoo artist named Deathy (Laverne Cox), whose conversation with Elle reveals some of Grandma’s kindness and generosity—traits that Elle has shied away from admitting. We get the sense that Elle’s social and political beliefs have occasionally been at odds with her human impulses, yet she doesn’t come across as an embittered militant feminist lesbian (a label many people have undoubtedly used to dismiss her). Perhaps the best scenes are those between Elle and Karl (Sam Elliott), her experimental boyfriend of 40 years ago. Their banter is funny but heartbreaking at its core, hinting at deeper feelings for one another than either person wants to admit. Grandma revels in the chemistry of great actors—not just romantic chemistry, but that spark of enjoyable energy and excitement that comes when performers respect and appreciate each other. Credit must also go to Weitz for shaping this material to show off the considerable strengths of Tomlin and the rest of the fine ensemble cast. The material could’ve become a didactic, pro-female empowerment tract, but it has warmth and believability due to the script and the actors. We believe these are real people, not just mouthpieces for humanist views. They’re fallible, neurotic, sad, wrong-headed, and sometimes their own worst enemies—but we accept them, and we see a little of ourselves and our friends in them. The best reason to see Grandma, though, is Lily Tomlin herself. Her performance encapsulates all the virtues of the film’s screenplay, direction, and affection for human beings. She is, as critic Peter Martin in Dallas Film Now rapturously declared, “awesome incarnate…. so much confidence and charisma that it’s a pleasure to sit back and watch her work her magic.” That’s an experience that younger fans owe themselves, too. Older moviegoers known Tomlin’s terrific work from movies like The Late Show and All of Me, where she created unusual rapport with actors Art Carney and Steve Martin, respectively. “Rapport” is what she demonstrates here, too, and it’s a rare joy to see actors that actually have it. Grandma is a highly entertaining film that veers smoothly from comedy to drama without becoming too jokey or heavy. It’s a difficult balancing act, but the film accomplishes it, creating one of the best character portraits of the year through Tomlin’s extraordinary, award-worthy performance.
(Rated R for profanity and some drug use.)
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