Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Tue Aug 18, 2015 1:43 pm 
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JULIA GARNER AND LILY TOMLIN IN GRANDMA

Lily Tomlin shows her stuff

In Paul Weitz's new movie Lily Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a blunt-spoken 75-year-old lesbian poet who, in her heyday, was the darling of Women's Studies courses. She is a bit past her prime now, a little unsteady on her pins, but still full of honesty and vitriol. This role is not a challenge for Lily, maybe, but an opportunity -- one that delivers feeling and laughs and fits her like a glove. In the opening scene, Elle banishes Olivia (Judy Greer), a much younger girlfriend who's only been in the picture a couple of months. From this we learn Elle is not only bitter and misanthropic but bereaved: a year ago saw the passing of her significant other of 38 years, who was important in the raising of Elle's formidable daughter, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), a high powered lawyer neither Elle nor Sage wants to face now, and also helped with raising Sage.

Grandma is perhaps more a character study than an action. But it does have a story line. This begins after the departure of Olivia when Elle's pretty 18-year-old granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) turns up requiring help. She is pregnant and needs $600 for an abortion right away. The thing has to be done. Of course pro-lifers would strenuously disagree, a fact poignantly confronted in a later scene; but Sage has scheduled an appointment at an abortion clinic for late that afternoon. The movie turns into a series of ticking clock scenes that unfold as Elle and Sage go around looking for the money under pressure of the clinic deadline. Elle has just recently paid off all her outstanding debts and cut up her credit cards and made them into a wind chime. If she had not, there would be no story. If the ladies had gone to Judy first off, there wouldn't be one either. There is this edge of contrivance to the screenplay, but it doesn't detract from the movie.

Objects of Sage and Elle's visits are various. It's satisfying to see Cam (Nat Wolff), the good-for-nothing young cause of Sage's pregnancy, get smashed in the balls by Elle with his own hockey stick. More just desultory are visits to several women. There's a bored lady (Elizabeth Peña) with a café-cum-women's center to whom Elle tries in vain to sell a stack of Women's Lif classic first editions (Betty Friedan, etc.). They aren't worth as much as Elle thinks, and the friend won't pay nearly what they're worth anyway. Grandma and granddaughter are effectively kicked out of two cafes for Elle's rude language, which is enjoyable on screen, but wouldn't be if you were sipping coffee. An indicator of Elle's colorful past is Deathy (Laverne Cox), a big silicon-boobed tattoo artist who owes Elle a debt of gratitude and money. She has the gratitude, but not the dough.

The unquestionable highlight of these encounters is the visit to Karl (Sam Elliott), some kind of former flame (we find out what), who has had four wives and yet is still flush. Tall, thin, handsome, impressively eyebrowed and moustachioed, Sam Elliott makes a dashing gray fox, as was shown in the recent Blythe Danner vehicle, I'll See You in My Dreams. But he's not just a pretty old boy here. It turns out the complicated story of Ellle and Karl goes back 50 years, but the buried hurt and anger remain so strong in him that they still bubble up suddenly now. Elliott delivers a performance of rare emotional intensity.

Finally Sage and Elle do after all have to confront their well-heeled, workaholic daughter/mom Judy, and this is where conventional resolution comes. Harden, like Elliott, has proven her fitness for the role she's given here, since she played a media company chief counsel with off-putting rigor in the recent Aaron Sorkin HBO series "Newsroom." But after Karl, Judy's disapproval, recrimination, and afterthought apology are, relatively speaking, just a lot of over-caffeinated bluster.

Paul Weitz, who wrote and produced as well as directed, has had a mixed career: American Pie, then About a Boy; Little Fockers, then Being Flynn. He isn't trying anything too hard here, and some parts of the screenplay are visibly contrived, but this feisty little chamber piece is very watchable -- as well as femme-centric and obviously pro-choice as well as an opportunity for Tomlin to acknowledge her own sexual identity. It not only has moments for the actors to shine, but leaves us with a well-rounded warts-and-all character whose backstory's lacunae only add to our sense of her depth, and considers the question of choice in life from more than one human angle besides the Planned Parenthood one.

Grandma, 79 mins., debuted at Sundance January 2015 and showed at eight or ten other festivals, some of them gay. US theatrical release 21 August 2015.

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