Directed by: Paul Weitz
Premise: A young woman (Julia Garner) in need of money for an abortion enlists the help of her grandmother (Lily Tomlin), and the two of them spend the day calling in favors in an attempt to come up with the money.
What Works: Grandma was written and directed by Paul Weitz who had previously directed the original American Pie and About a Boy. Grandma has some of the recognizable elements of Weitz’s other work, namely a profane sense of humor offset by a sweetness and a genuine affinity for the characters. This movie is a bit more mature than some of Weitz’s other projects, perhaps owning to the fact that the story centers upon a fifty year old woman. Like Paul Weitz’s other movies, Grandma is very funny and a lot of that has to do with the extraordinary performance by Lily Tomlin. She plays a lesbian poet who, in the first scene of the movie, very cruelly breaks up with her much younger girlfriend, played by Judy Greer. The filmmakers set up Tomlin’s character as someone who is not easy to like and the script allows her to be awful but in a way that is funny. Tomlin does a terrific job of embodying this woman and coarse episodes are interspersed with moments of sweetness that keep the audience engaged with her character in much the same way as Jack Nicholson’s role in As Good As It Gets. Tomlin’s character reveals her vulnerability over the course of the movie although the film never veers into sentimentality. Grandma is essentially a road trip movie but instead of taking place across the country the characters drive across town one afternoon. Lily Tomlin’s character is joined by her granddaughter, played by Julia Garner who also gives a strong performance. As the two of them travel across town, Garner’s character inadvertently learns about her grandmother’s past and the two of them have an authentic relationship, with the younger woman gradually coming to see her grandmother as a complicated person who has lived a full life. The movie also has notable supporting performances by Sam Elliot and Judy Greer. Elliot is only in the movie for one scene but he makes a big impression that echoes throughout the rest of the picture.
What Doesn’t: The brisk and lightweight qualities of Grandma are both for better and for worse. Running just seventy-nine minutes, Grandma is barely a feature film. Taking Grandma as a character study the movie mostly works but as a story it does not entirely cohere and the narrative is a string of events that are tethered together very tenuously. The element of Grandma that is probably going to make or break the appeal of this movie is the abortion issue. This story is about a young woman and her grandmother in pursuit of the money to pay for an abortion and the film has a very clear and quite narrow take on the morality of the issue. For viewers who find abortion morally objectionable the movie is just going to be a nonstarter. And even for those who have affirmative or ambivalent views on abortion, Grandma is strangely casual about the subject. Abortion is a complicated topic but this movie does not address that complexity. The single meaningful moment of moral complexity around abortion is given to Sam Elliot’s character; the women of the movie never discuss it. In that respect (and in a few others), Grandma has a lot in common with Juno, which also dealt with unwanted pregnancy in equally glib terms.
Bottom Line: Grandma is a well-made little character study. The film is a little too flippant for its own good but it is smart and funny while also creating rich and interesting characters, especially the lead played by Lily Tomlin.
Episode: #561 (September 27, 2015)