Grandma review: Is Lily Tomlin laughing her way to gong?
The veteran comedic actress deserves an Oscar for her cartoonishly obnoxious role in this subversive comedy, says Andrew Johnston
It has been 40 years since Lily Tomlin was nominated for an Academy Award for Nashville, but she could soon be in the running again — and as with Robert Altman’s 1975 movie, if she doesn’t win for Paul Weitz’s wonderful Grandma, there’s something wrong.
Writer-director Weitz broke through co-helming the quintessential Nineties gross-out flick American Pie with brother Chris, alongside whom he also made About a Boy. Solo credits have included mainstream comic fodder such as American Dreamz and Little Fockers. So, it’s something of a surprise that Grandma is as smart, as sensitive and as subversive as it is.
This is a small film with big ideas. It may be just over an hour and a quarter long, feature a cast of about half a dozen and have as its star a 76-year-old stand-up who hasn’t had a leading screen role in decades, but like David taking aim at Goliath, Grandma bravely tackles many of society’s most looming taboos. From homosexuality to abortion to getting old, it’s all in here.
Happily, Grandma is also very funny. The brilliant Tomlin manages to make her cartoonishly obnoxious titular character not just believable, but likeable, too. The veteran comedian plays Elle, a straight-talking, lesbian former poet of some renown. She lives in a book-strewn bungalow and, still grieving the death of her long-term partner, is in the process of dumping her latest, much younger girlfriend, Olivia (portrayed by the ever-excellent supporting actor Judy Greer).
At one point, someone asks Elle why she stopped writing. “Because people stopped reading,” she snaps, in one of her few printable retorts. Elsewhere, she colours the air with a string of explicit tirades that are all the more chucklesome for coming out of the mouth of a diminutive septuagenarian.
Grandma’s plot kicks in when Elle’s pregnant granddaughter Sage (the delightful Julia Garner) shows up, asking for $600 in order to pay for an abortion. Unfortunately, Elle is broke herself, so the generation-straddling pair set off in the older woman’s 1955 Dodge Royal Lancer on a quest to raise the cash.
The bulk of the rest of the picture is a low-octane road trip, as the hapless duo visit first the father of Sage’s unborn baby, the wretched Cam (Nat Wolff), and then Elle’s embittered ex-husband from 50 years ago, Karl (Sam Elliott).
Of course, nothing goes to plan, and eventually, the twosome reluctantly find themselves at the door of Sage’s mother — Elle’s daughter — Judy (Marcia Hat Harden). The lady is a ball of stress in a power suit, and through Harden’s deft performance, you instantly see who Judy takes her acid tongue after, and why Sage is so cowed.
During their journey, Elle and Sage discover much about themselves, about family, about relationships, about how decisions made in youth can haunt you for all time and about how a 10-year-old pro-life protester can still deliver a mean black eye.
The cumulative effect is like a less demented John Waters, or perhaps an edgier Woody Allen. Grandma is the second comedy-drama in the past year or so to use abortion as a central plot device, following 2014’s similarly impactful Obvious Child. How times have changed.
But not for Tomlin. She remains a joy to watch, as acerbic and amusing as ever, and she really, really deserves that Oscar.