Sage (Julia Garner) and Elle (Lily Tomlin) in Grandma (Aaron Epstein/Sony Pictures Classics)
Lily Tomlin fits none of the stereotypes of anyone’s grandmother. Her onscreen persona for the past 40 years has been tart-tongued, ferociously intelligent and often a little bit loopy, like the hippie who never quite left the ’60s behind. In the Paul Weitz film Grandma, Tomlin plays all of the hallmarks of her persona while taking many of those from her own life, from as large as her lesbian identity to as small as driving the beat-up old car that Tomlin has owned for decades, yet it would be wrong to call this an example of an actress playing herself. This is the best performance that Tomlin has ever given in a film that was not directed by Robert Altman.
Grandma stars Tomlin as Elle Reid, a lesbian poet of some renown who remains in mourning over the loss of her partner of nearly 40 years. Despite attempts to get on with her life, which include a relationship with a much younger woman played by Judy Greer, Elle still cannot get past the loss of her partner until her life is disrupted by her teenage granddaughter Sage, who arrives at her house to ask her for money so that she can get an abortion. Julia Garner of “The Americans” plays the granddaughter, and despite being in her 20s the young actress looks as if she time-traveled from the ’20s; the next production that requires flappers should hire Garner immediately.
Abortion is so rarely a topic in American films, and for good reason. It is not simply that the subject is so controversial among some segments of the public that it would cause intense anger; those people would never have been the audience for a film starring a lesbian as a lesbian anyway. It is that having an abortion ends a story prematurely. A traditional story usually ends with births, deaths, weddings or break-ups, and an abortion will end what could be a nine-month story in an afternoon, giving characters little time to grow. This is not a statement of politics but of storytelling, in the same way that films about cancer rarely end with the character going into remission. Grandma deftly handles this problem by making the film less about Sage and more about Elle, while still handling the issue with sensitivity. The film treats abortion and its effect on the person who has one seriously, while never questioning whether Sage is making the right choice. That the film is so mature about the issue is unlikely, and that this maturity comes from the man who directed American Pie makes it even more remarkable.
Grandma is no polemic, though, and true to Weitz’s start in teenage comedies, it is a very funny film. There may be no better person to handle this than Tomlin, who has been honing her skill as a comedian for nearly 50 years since her start on television’s “Laugh-In.” Despite the occasional foray into dramatic work, such as her career-best work with Robert Altman from Nashville to A Prairie Home Companion, Tomlin has never felt what would have been a misguided need to outgrow comedy, and what Grandma offers is the opportunity to see a master at her craft.
With its pared-down, road-movie structure, Grandma features numerous bit parts for talented, if often unappreciated actors such as the surprisingly funny Marcia Gay Harden, the late Elizabeth Peña in one of her final roles and, best of all, Sam Elliott, who has one remarkable scene with Tomlin that suggests a different, if equally interesting, film could be told from his perspective.
There are so many different ways that Grandma could go wrong, and its very premise (lesbian takes her granddaughter to get an abortion) feels so antithetical to comedy that it is a wonder that it works at all. The credit here should go to Tomlin, whose role in Grandma demonstrates why she has been one of the most reliable and accomplished comic actors for almost the past 50 years.
Sony Pictures Classics
In theaters Aug. 21
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