Wednesday, August 19, 2015

“Grandma”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of “Grandma”, a comedy starring Lily Tomlin.


When a teenager needs money for an abortion, she asks her grandmother for help – but with the woman also cash-poor, can she manage to find a way to assist her granddaughter?


It’s been a year and a half since Elle (Tomlin) lost Violet, her companion of 38 years, after a long illness.  Despite that, she still doesn’t appear to be over the loss quite yet; four months into a relationship with the much-younger Olivia (Judy Greer), Elle picks a fight and dumps her.  Elle isn’t allowed to wallow in her self-pity very long when she’s visited by Sage (Julia Garner), her granddaughter.  Unfortunately for both of them, this is no social call; Sage explains that her boyfriend has knocked her up and she must borrow money for an abortion. 

With Elle low on funds herself, she nevertheless remains determined to help Sage; together, they venture out about town to see if various other people can be of some assistance.  First stop is the obvious one, Sage’s boyfriend; under threat of physical violence, he finally coughs up some cash, but not nearly enough to cover the procedure.  Then, Elle tries to sell some books from her own personal library – but once she learns that they aren’t as valuable as she believed, the plan must be abandoned.  Next, they pay a visit to Karl (Sam Elliott), Elle’s ex-boyfriend; when things did not end well between them years ago, she must grovel to get the cash – but learning of the true reason for her urgency, Karl rescinds his offer.

Left with no further alternatives, Elle and Sage realize it’s now time to seek out Sage’s mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), the absolutely last person on earth Sage wanted to know about her predicament.  Having had a falling-out some time back, Judy is not too pleased to see Elle; predictably, she goes ballistic upon being told of her daughter’s pregnancy, but agrees to help her regardless.  Once the situation has been addressed and Elle returns to life as normal, can she now figure out how to resolve some of the relationships that she went out of her way to ruin?


Although it may be somewhat difficult to consider Paul Weitz, writer-director of “Grandma”, to be a feminist filmmaker, that is precisely how he comes across in this movie; it is so female-centric and male-phobic, one might suspect it was both conceived and executed by a woman (or at the very least, he made sure that his screenplay passed the infamous Bechdel Test prior to being lensed).  The result, however, is a movie that is trite and clichéd despite the best efforts of its excellent cast – Lily Tomlin in particular – to elevate its material. 

All of that having been said, it seems both odd and even contradictory to state that in the one scene with Sam Elliott, he steals it – if not the entire movie, it might be argued.  His performance as Karl, Elle’s lover before having met Violet, is a central point in the movie and he delivers it well; initially understated, Elliott builds a momentum in the scene before finally exploding in its emotionally powerful culmination, which also sets the story on its ear, given all of the exposition delivered.  Equally good is the ever-reliable Judy Greer, to the point that you wind up wishing her Olivia had more of a presence. 

While this may have been intended as a vehicle for Tomlin to show off her skills in what may very well be her farewell performance in movies (at least in a lead role), the character of Elle is too much of a querulous virago to garner much in the way of sympathy from the audience.  Perhaps one possible explanation for this may be the fact that since Elle is in her 70’s, she is feeling stress over her life nearing its end and is experiencing considerable regret over the way it has turned out; that may be a way of understanding why Elle misbehaves the way she does – but it could also be giving the filmmaker an unjustifiably generous benefit of the doubt. 

Grandma (2015) on IMDb

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