Fuelled by an Oscar-worthy performance from Lily Tomlin, “Grandma” is a comedy with something on its mind.
It’s often bitterly funny, with Tomlin (age 76) totally nailing her character, a grumpy granny with a foul-mouthed sarcastic streak.
But in this look at three generations of women from one family, writer/director Paul Weitz mines some serious material.
Love (lost and realized), regret, familial ties, aging and death all find voice here. But shining through it all is a fierce passion for life.
When we first view Elle Reid (Tomlin) she’s dumping Olivia (Judy Geer), her girlfriend of just four months. When Olivia protests that they mean something to each other, Elle sneers: “You’re a footnote.”
Besides, Elle says, Olivia is a young woman while she is “rapidly approaching 50.”
Caustic and self-deprecating, Elle — who prides herself on being an early feminist — appears to be one tough cookie. But once Olivia has grabbed her stuff and fled, this failed poet retreats to her shower and sobs.
She won’t have much time for self pity. She’s soon interrupted by her teenage granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), who needs $600 right away. Sage is 10 weeks pregnant and has an appointment for an abortion that very afternoon.
She explains that her boyfriend promised her the money but has failed to deliver. Sage cannot possible go to her lawyer mother for help.
Elle is broke. In an antiestablishment snit she has even shredded her credit cards. But she packs Sage into her ominously knocking 70-year-old sedan and sets out to raise the cash.
This day-long quest leads the pair to first confront Sage’s oafish and bad-tempered boyfriend (Nat Wolff), who learns not to swear at an old lady if you value your testicles.
Then it’s off to a local tattoo parlor, but Elle’s trans friend Deathy (Laverne Cox) is tapped out. Elle has a scheme to sell some of her signed first-edition Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan books to another friend, the coffee shop owner Carla (the late Elizabeth Pena in her last role) — but she has wildly overestimated the volumes’ value.
In desperation she turns to Karl (an excellent Sam Elliott), with whom she had an affair more than 40 years earlier. That doesn’t work out, either.
“So you used to like men?” Sage asks.
“Oh, I always liked women. I just didn’t like myself.”
Eventually they have no choice but to turn to Sage’s mom Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), who hasn’t spoken to Elle in months.
There’s another character hanging over these proceedings, though she’s seen only in a photograph. Violet, who died two years earlier, was Elle’s long-time companion. She appears to have been everything Elle is not: nurturing, supportive, optimistic, forgiving.
Sage refers to her as “Grandma Vi,” and it’s pretty obvious that her mellowing presence tempered Elle’s withering world view. Without Vi, Elle has been stewing in her own anger.
“Grandma” isn’t a discussion about the rights or wrongs of abortion (although Sage wonders aloud if she’s dooming herself to hell).
Rather, it’s about being a woman, with the three main characters representing different stages of life and perspective. Writer/director Weitz, whose resume covers everything from the raunchy “American Pie” to the affecting “About a Boy,” clearly loves these characters, giving them depth, desires and a sense of self that is ultimately liberating.
Everyone here is good, but Tomlin is borderline great. A lesser actress might push too hard for laughs, but Tomlin knows that some of the best humor is a response to pain.
In the end “Grandma” is laugh-out-loud funny, but also emotionally powerful in unexpected ways.