Grandma movie review: Lily Tomlin is superb in this soulful comedy
Back in the 1980s, Lily Tomlin was a big noise in the American entertainment industry. A brave, peerless and hugely influential stand-up comic, she made her name in TV shows like The Rowan and Martin Laugh-In before graduating to hit comedy records, stage shows and, eventually, movies. She had a huge hit alongside Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton in the 1980 comedy 9 to 5, was brilliant opposite Steve Martin in All of Me (1984), and had fun with Bette Midler in Big Business (1989).
But Hollywood never quite knew what to do with her: there was something too smart, too strident about her. Her sexuality (she's gay) seemed an unspoken issue, and she wasn't prepared to take any crap off anyone either. While fellow free spirits, such as Robert Altman, understood her unique talent, not many other film-makers seemed to: she's hard to cast, and has appeared in surprisingly few films over the course of her otherwise glittering career.
Now, at 76, she's having a bit of a comeback. She received an Emmy nomination for her work with Jane Fonda on the Netflix sitcom Grace and Frankie a few months back, and now comes Grandma, and a truly remarkable performance.
Writer/director Paul Weitz has said he'd toyed with the idea for his film for many years, but couldn't find a voice for his central character until he met Lily. He wrote Grandma for her, and what a very wise decision that was.
Grandma is an unusual, even daring, film in its way - a comedy with soul, and a warm-hearted and admirably succinct drama that dares to honestly address the one big American social issue that dare not speak its name: abortion.
But Paul Weitz's movie stands or falls on Tomlin's performance: she's in virtually every scene, and her bossy, sarcastic and grandly iconoclastic character is impossible to ignore. She's brilliant, as it turns out, funny and believable and a worthy standard bearer for the better cause of 1960s feminism.
Elle Reid is an elderly lesbian poet who's withdrawn from the world following the recent death of her long-time partner, Vi. Elle used to be something of a literary big shot, but now barely writes and seems to have come to the end of herself. Then, out of the blue, a life-changing challenge arrives on her doorstep in the elfin shape of her late teenage granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner).
Sage has just found out that she's pregnant and wants to have an abortion. Only trouble is, she's broke, and is too terrified to ask her mother (and Elle's daughter), Judy (Marcia Gay Harden) for help. The procedure will cost $630, and though Elle agrees to help, there's a problem: on a counter-cultural point of principle, she has recently cut up all her credit cards, and hasn't got a bean. So she and Sage strike out across greater Los Angeles in Elle's temperamental 1955 Dodge Royal in search of the necessary.
First, they try and sell Elle's first edition copies of such feminist classics as The Second Sex and The Feminine Mystique, but in this debased age, they turn out to be virtually worthless.
They hit up Elle's friend, a transsexual hairdresser, and even try an old boyfriend (Sam Elliott, in wonderful fettle) she'd abandoned in her youth, but are only putting off the remorseful moment when they tap up the formidable Judy.
Marcia Gay Harden explodes onto the screen during her brief but memorable appearance, and young Julia Garner is very good as the delicate-looking, but surprisingly tough, teenager. But this is Lily's film, and she brings touching depth to a character that might have been merely shrill and bombastic in lesser hands.
"Mom says you're a philanthropist," Sage tells her fulminating grandmother at one point during their odyssey. She meant misanthrope, but Elle's grumpiness is just a front, a fact that becomes clearer and clearer as Grandma nears its commendably brave conclusion.
Grandma (16, 79mins) 4 stars