Grandma

★★★ 3/4


Simple, bittersweet, and moving, Paul Weitz’s Grandma works not because of the supremely progressive nature of its subject matter, but because it presents these themes in such a quaint, old-fashioned way. It’s a trip through an über-liberal worldview presented as a classic cranky-old-person comedy, Archie Bunker as filtered through Rachel Maddow and The Feminine Mystique.

Elle (Tomlin) is a washed-up poet and academic with a vicious streak she uses to seal herself off from the quotidian trivialities of normal human interaction. Particularly cruel is the way she breaks up with her much younger current lover Olivia (Judy Greer), telling her “You’re a footnote,” before ordering her to leave her house key on the coffee table. Elle has found herself increasingly isolated after the death of her longtime girlfriend—the two were together for almost four decades—and is now severing whatever ties to the rest of the world she has left. She only works sporadically, she’s paid off all her debts and cut up her credit cards to ensure financial independence, and she barely ever speaks to her daughter. Elle’s not quite a hermit, but, given her life’s trajectory, she’s well on her way.

Enter Sage (a terrific Julie Garner), Elle’s teenage granddaughter who shows up at her doorstep and asks for $630 cash. Seems Elle’s pregnant and has an abortion scheduled for that afternoon, but has no way to pay for it. Unfortunately, neither does Elle—her bank account is hovering below the $50 line, and she’s got no savings, having spent all her money on paying off her late girlfriend’s hospital bills. Thus the two begin their big adventure, crisscrossing the countryside in Elle’s ’55 Dodge Royal, visiting every friend and haunt Elle can think of to scrounge together the cash.

Of course, this pool of potential contributors isn’t very deep, thanks to Elle’s recent spate of seclusion. But this limited number of resources allows Weitz to set up the film as a series of vignettes piecing together Elle’s life through the people she hits up for the cash. There’s Deathy (Laverne Cox), the tattoo artist who Elle helped out a few years back, and Carla (Elizabeth Peña), a coffee shop owner—and Olivia’s boss—against whom Elle has a simmering grudge. Both help reveal both Elle’s compassion and her coldness, how she can go from loving and thoughtful friend to vitriol-filled rage machine from moment to moment. In one of the film’s more telling exchanges, Sage says her mom calls Elle “philanthropic,” then realizes she means “misanthropic.” And, indeed, Elle encapsulates both extremes.

Then there’s Karl, Elle’s ex-husband played by Sam Elliot. In a sequence that ranks as not only the best in the movie, but as one of the best in cinema this year, Elle visits Karl at his home, hoping he can look past their near half-century of estrangement to help Sage out of her jam. This section is a glorious piece of smoldering resentment and heartache, a bitingly funny yet crushing confrontation between two old lovers who seem just as confused by their sudden reunion as they are by why the hell they actually got together all those years ago. Tomlin’s great, Elliot’s even better, and the just-under-the-surface tension of their exchange is electrifying. Plus, trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Sam Elliot say, “I just boiled some corn.” (The only thing that might equal it is hearing Ian McKellen say “royal jelly.”)

Yet, as great as Grandma can be, it also feels safe. And I know how bizarre it sounds using this term to describe a film that centers upon a pot-smokin’ lesbian grandma who’s helping her granddaughter get an abortion, but there’s a general tendency of the film to stay within the comfort zone of its desired audience that seems a bit unambitious. For one, Weitz’s direction smacks of a commercial director attempting to go indie. Tinkling guitars, shots of sun-dappled leaves against a blue sky, softly focused establishing shots of random objects—it all feels a bit much coming from the guy who directed American Pie and Little Fockers.

But more noticeable is the overt ideological slant. Don’t get me wrong—the politics of Grandma fall largely in line with my own. Yet, reflexive contrarian that I am, I can’t help but get a little cynical when confronted with a narrative that steadfastly sticks to liberalism without at least presenting some challenge to this philosophy. At times it seems like the film has a list of left-wing talking points and is ticking them off one by one. Abortion, gay rights, women’s rights, birth control, teen sexuality, transgenderism, the hypocrisy inherent in the hardcore right-wing pro-life movement—it’s like Elle is a liberal poster child, spreading progressivism and first-edition feminist literature across the Los Angeles landscape. But the movie never quite connects with these issues on anything more than a cursory level. It’s more like a tourist video for an ideology than a insightful reflection.

Still, it’s a great role for Tomlin, tailor-made for her by Weitz, who also wrote the film. Tomlin is wonderful as Elle, deserving of mounds of attention come award season. Every heartache, every spiteful jab, every carefully concealed iota of concern for her daughter and granddaughter can be read on her pinched, grimacing face and in her bitter, caustic remarks. Yet, with Tomlin being Tomlin, you can’t dislike Elle, no matter how unreasonably apoplectic she grows over, say, a slow driver in the fast lane, or redundant signage at a coffee shop. “I’m a horrible person,” Elle admits at the beginning of the film, and then spends the rest of the movie revealing why neither we nor she should believe this statement. It’s an turnaround worth witnessing, no doubt.

About Ben Hallman (19 Articles)
Ben Hallman once helped Bill Murray find bubblegum at a Target in Charleston, South Carolina. He thinks this makes them blood brothers. It does not. Read more of Ben's movie reviews at www.letterboxd.com/oobawa/

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