Kudos for Paul Weitz for recognizing that a foul-mouthed Lily Tomlin vehicle is definitely something that should exist. On that we’re in total agreement. I just wish it would exist better. In Grandma, Tomlin plays a tell-it-like-it-is, take-no-prisoners tough old broad, an aging sixties feminist poet who just lost her girlfriend of 38 years and is so sad about it that she’s mean to her new, much younger one, played by Judy Greer.
Meanwhile, her semi-estranged granddaughter played by Julia Garner has just showed up at her house needing money for an abortion. Grandma only has $48 in the bank, as she’s just paid off her debts and cut up her credit cards, leading the mismatched pair on a goose chase of fund raising and debt collecting where the real destination is familial understanding. And life-affirming acoustic guitar riffs. Of course life-affirming acoustic guitar riffs.
I don’t want to bash the obvious Sundance-comedy-by-numbers formula of Grandma (too much), where a cranky, crotchety old fart befriends a cute ingenue while giving a stuffy world a much-needed dose of straight talk, because St. Vincent was just as guilty of that, and I ended up liking that one quite a lot. But there’s a creaking hamminess to the execution in Grandma, and a sense that it’s far too impressed with its own very mild edginess. Minor characters’ reactions to Lily Tomlin’s zingers are too big, everyone asking her “what did you just say?!” after she says something, as if we didn’t all just hear it, or making big eyebrow moves as if we needed help knowing that she’s wild. A fire cracker. A real kick in the pants, if you will. It’s like being at a comedy show where the crowd is laughing way too hard at a so-so joke.
See, if you’re going to make the straight-talking curmudgeon movie, the zingers themselves have to be razor sharp. The humor has to be based on the words, or something other than the idea that an older person smoking weed and talking sh*t and hooking up with chicks is “outrageous,” because let’s be honest, that’s pretty patronizing. It’s 2015. My dad is 69 and regularly calls me a pussy for not smoking weed with him. I can almost guarantee real-life Lily Tomlin has seen and done far wilder sh*t than I ever will, so watching her doing “outrageous” things that aren’t that outrageous not only isn’t novel, it’s vaguely insulting.
There’s a great scene with Sam Elliott, who’s probably the most handsome 70-year-old I’ve ever seen, and the cast, from Tomlin and Greer on down to Tomlin’s daughter, played by Marcia Gay Harden, are well chosen and game. But they’re working with reheated leftovers here. At one point, Tomlin’s character and her granddaughter take a visit to the fetus father, a dopey stoner who might as well be an upturned mop wearing a pot leaf shirt. You pretty much know exactly where that scene is going, only Grandma just sort of runs out of zingers halfway through and has Tomlin hit the kid in the nuts instead. Really? That was the best we could do with that scene? I can imagine the set directions: GUY YOU WISH WOULD GET PUNCHED gets punched. It must’ve been a short script.
The movie had its moments, and to be fair, it’s not Paul Weitz’s fault that I had to watch it in a press screening full of beige-y liberals chortling way too hard into their crisp North Face jackets because the funny lady finally gave those dang pro lifers what fer. A fictional character simply saying something that I agree with isn’t a solid enough comedic premise for me, but that’s just me, and this movie clearly wasn’t for me. It’s a movie for people who like their comedy safe, their opinions unchallenged, their conflict life-affirming, their chais soy. It’s… cute.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.