Directed by: Paul Weitz
Written by: Paul Weitz
Starring: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden and Sam Elliot
Grandma is a robust, compact vehicle for the boundless talent of Lily Tomlin. She is so effortlessly funny and at times disarmingly sad here that it makes its faults easier to stomach. The movie is set up as a series of vignettes involving Elle Reid (Tomlin) and her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) trying to raise $630 so Sage can have an abortion without telling her judgmental, ruthless mother (Marcia Gay Harden). Though Grandma’s dialogue about abortion tends to be overly didactic, that it doesn’t punish, kill or judge Sage for wanting the procedure is admirable.
Elle doesn’t have the money on hand to give her granddaughter because she’s broke after paying off all her debt (and then cutting up her credit cards to make a wind chime), so she and Sage set out to raise the money. First, they try the loser who got Sage pregnant (Nat Wolff), but he only has $50, and Elle has to hit him in the nuts with a hockey stick to get even that much out of him. From there, the two go on a drive through Elle’s past in an effort to get the rest of the money before Sage’s appointment at 5:45 p.m. (They start off on their fundraising journey at about 9 a.m. that same day, when Sage shows up at her grandma’s house right after Elle had broken up with her girlfriend Olivia [Judy Greer]).
Paul Weitz, who wrote and directed Grandma, has a knack with performers and plays to their strengths. Tomlin nails every comedic reaction shot, often pairing it with a biting one-liner. Julia Garner gives Sage an authentic emotional core without losing site of Sage’s determination. Laverne Cox and Judy Greer have a natural rapport with Tomlin, which makes their small scenes some of the movie’s most memorable.
Perhaps the most surprising performance of all, though, is Sam Elliot’s. When Elle first shows up at his character’s house, he seems like he’s on the verge of delivering a monologue about her mystique similar to the one at the end of The Big Lebowski. However, as they talk more and more about their past, he unleashes a surprising torrent of anger and pain.
Grandma’s set-up is sometimes simple to a fault, but its small, intimate scenes often play to its advantage because of the excellent cast. The time limit for the abortion appointment, however preposterous, gives the narrative a jolt of urgency. Even though Tomlin’s performance is great, she can’t subdue all of the movie’s heavy-handed dialogue. Even worse, though, are the transitions between the movie’s various confrontations. Those largely consist of Elle and Sage sitting in the car with the same dull, uninspired score droning on as they drive down the road.
The movie does have a great moment in a car toward the end, and it’s great because of its simplicity: Elle sits in the back of a taxi, her heavy, tired eyes staring out the window in silence. Then she starts to laugh, and she talks to Violet, her now-deceased partner of 30+ years whose absence haunts the entire movie. Elle’s whole life seems to play over her face in that moment, not just the day when the movie is set. The built-in history that Tomlin brings to the role gives the movie life.