★★★ / ★★★★
“Grandma,” a solid day-in-the-life comedy but not a particularly memorable one, is a barometer for Lily Tomlin’s powerful but seemingly effortless presence. One looks in those eyes and that face for mere seconds and one cannot help but to imagine her character’s history, to ask what she’s all about, what she stands for.
Tomlin plays a lesbian poet named Elle whose granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), knocks on her door and asks for six hundred and thirty dollars to pay for an abortion. Sage has an appointment at the clinic that very afternoon. Although Elle would like to help, she, too, is strapped for cash given that she had just paid off her debts and destroyed her credit cards. But the feisty grandmother has an idea: To visit some old friends—some she has not seen in years—and borrow some money.
Although the picture offers a relatively simple premise, it navigates through an archipelago of emotions. Each visit is, at the very least, superficially interesting, often with a wonderful ear for dialogue. Tomlin has a talent for showing a different side to her character with each confrontation. Thus, we consistently learn something new about Elle. The past is often alluded to and one cannot help to imagine her younger, possibly more reckless, self. Clearly, Elle is a woman worth knowing. Love her or hate her, the viewer will not walk away having no opinion of her. Such is a mark of a well-written protagonist.
Perhaps the most memorable visit involves a man in his sixties or seventies, played by Sam Elliot. There is great tension during his scenes because Elliot is able to match Tomlin’s presence. Both, physically, are like grandparents you’d love to hug and hang out with, but the moment Elle and Karl talk about their shared history, there is clearly pain there. I relished the stark contrast between Elliot’s relatively calm exterior but every intonation in his voice communicates something else entirely just underneath.
The comedy does not come across as forced. One of the reasons is because writer-director Paul Weitz trusts his leading performer’s instincts, coupled with Tomlin’s intelligence and knack for playing against what may sound script-like and making it rather flawed or human. She is not afraid to make fun of her character—and herself. As a result, a line or two that might have sounded silly or trite in lesser hands sounds and feels natural here. Elle being a self-deprecating woman works for the material.
The picture might have been stronger if Sage were written and played more interestingly. Although we see a few sides of her personality, by the time the film ends, we still feel as though we don’t know her well enough. Garner plays the character with a level of laissez-faire attitude—appropriate at times because she is a rebellious teenager, after all—but a bit more presence and enthusiasm might have taken the character on another level. Still, “Grandma” engages throughout because the writing is often crisp and Tomlin is more than up to the task of commanding the screen.