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Lily Tomlin does her thing very well in Paul Weitz’ road trip comedy “Grandma”, even if the film isn’t quite as challenging as hoped. AD Cooper reviews.

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Grandma, a bittersweet film written especially for Lily Tomlin by director Paul Weitz, opens this week with the veteran comedienne showing no signs of slowing down or chilling out.  

Elle (Tomlin) is an irascible poet and academic in her seventies. This is not a woman who is going gently, but one who continues to live with enormous passion, constantly delivering machine-gun volleys of expletives, insults and unvarnished home truths. 

The story opens with the end of a short-lived romance with Olivia (Judy Greer). In truth, Elle is mourning the death of her long-time partner Violet, and immediately after her split with Olivia is seen weeping inconsolably in the shower, although for which lover is unclear. It’s the only time you really see her show any real emotion.

Soon after Elle’s granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) turns up unexpectedly, revealing that she’s pregnant and needs hundreds of dollars to pay for an abortion booked for that very day.

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Elle doesn’t have the money and they immediately climb into a vintage Dodge 55 Royal Lancer (incidentally, Tomlin’s own car) to visit the lame boyfriend to see if he will pay. When he can’t and won’t pay, Elle physically and verbally attacks him, laying down some of her best vitriolic lines.  

The two women then set off on a road trip, visiting various of Elle’s old friends in the hope of raising or borrowing the cash.  This includes meeting up with an old flame played Sam Elliott (with a voice like honey-coated gravel) ,who also reveals more about Elle’s complicated romantic and sexual history.  

The road trip is beset with problems, not least of which is the looming shadow of Elle’s estranged daughter Judy (Sage’s mother). They admit they are both scared of her and want to avoid her knowing about Sage’s unplanned pregnancy.

Julia Garner as Sage looks like the love child of Harpo Marx and Little Orphan Annie, but once you get past the curls, there’s a fine tempered performance as a woman whose feelings and hormones are clearly in a vortex. 

It’s a light film, and has a bit of an improvised feel to the dialogue, which often spits pure venom, especially between Elle and Judy, the dynamic workaholic mom played rather two-dimensionally by Marcia Gay Harden. It doesn’t feel quite enough.  

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Tomlin is fierce and loud in her first leading movie role for 27 years, but Elle’s language starts to become repetitive. You expect a richness of language from writers and poets, and there’s too much reliance on F-words and “asshole”-s. Now and again there’s a stinger, but there aren’t enough of them.  Elle isn’t a person you’d want in your house, and you never really warm to her. The comedy is almost entirely in Elle’s dialogue and the odd pratfall, and the film has a strong undercurrent of mourning and loss.  

Grandma is reminiscent of the TV series and upcoming feature film Absolutely Fabulous, with the inter-generational angst between the free thinkers of the 1960s and 1970s, their straight and somewhat embarrassed offspring, and now their somewhat confused grand children. 

This is a low budget American indie charmer of a film but it isn’t especially cinematic or challenging (notwithstanding the groundswell of the US anti-abortion lobby against a “pro-abortion comedy”). It has received a warm welcome on the art house circuit, selected by Sundance and Tribeca. 

Made in 19 days for less than $1million, it’s creating an Oscar buzz for Tomlin’s portrayal of Elle after a recent Golden Globe nomination.  But is it any different from the roles she’s played in the past on American TV or in 9 to 5? Probably not. But she does do what she does very well.  

Grandma is out now in UK cinemas. 

A D Cooper is a director, producer, writer and multi-media copywriter. She’s won awards for advertising writing, for screenplays long and short, written 80+ scripts for Ninja Warrior (Challenge TV) and published articles, short stories and joke books. Weary of waiting for someone to film her scripts, she started directing in 2010 creating a slate of short films including two corporates, a documentary and a museum installation. All of her fiction shorts for Hurcheon Films have been selected for international festivals, with Ace (2013) garnering five awards. Her most recent projects are an award-winning historical docushort Writing the Peace, a stage version of her World War 1 short film A Small Dot On The Western Front which she wrote, produced and directed, an experimental short film Spring on the Strand (selected for 3 festivals in the USA), The Penny Dropped (Award of Merit in a US shorts competition), and Home to the Hangers newly completed for the Directors UK Alexa Challenge 2017.

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Posted on Dec 15, 2015

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