Review: Lily Tomlin’s impressive performance can only elevate ‘Grandma’ so high

Paul Weitz”s “Grandma” is the sort of movie that should grow on you.  By the time it finishes you should be fully invested in the fate of Elle Reid, a woman attempting to help her granddaughter while also coming to peace with some of her own personal demons.  Thanks to the always-impressive Lily Tomlin and a few key supporting performances it almost hits the mark.  Again, “almost.”

When we first meet Elle (Tomlin) she”s an aging, but noteworthy writer forcing a breakup with her significantly younger girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer).  Eventually we”ll discover this four-month long affair was Elle”s first since the death of her longtime companion just a few years before, but at this point Elle”s behavior seems decidedly cruel and Olivia leaves distraught.  Neither she nor moviegoers understand why Elle would try and push Olivia away.  Weitz, who also wrote the screenplay, no doubt believes the audience will understand Elle's motivation as the storyline progresses.

Attempting to put the morning”s dramatic events behind her, Elle is surprised to find her teenage granddaughter Sage (Julie Garner) knocking on her door looking for help.  It turns out Sage is pregnant and needs $500 to pay for an abortion she”s scheduled for that afternoon.  Unfortunately, not only is Elle short of cash, but she”s even ripped up her credit cards and turned them into a wind chime.  With Elle”s daughter and Sage”s mom immediately ruled out (another one of the movie”s jumps in logic), the duo begin a day in the life trek across Los Angeles to find the dough.

This journey is meant to inform us about Elle”s state of being while providing a little bit of dramatic tension over whether Sage will get the money and/or go through with the procedure.  Weitz takes Sage”s pregnancy quite seriously, but it's really just meant to facilitate Elle's stroll down memory lane as she attempts to make peace with old friends while still getting her granddaughter to the clinic in time.  There”s the run-in with Deathy (Laverne Cox), the friendly tattoo artist who still owes Elle money after she helped her through a difficult time.  There”s an attempt to sell some priceless first edition books to a coffee house owner (Elizabeth Peña) and an awkward reunion with a very old flame (a fantastic Sam Elliott).  The latter is arguably the most powerful sequence in the film with Elliott”s character still recovering from a broken heart Elle ripped apart 40 years prior. The duo are quite good here and you immediately wish Elliott had a larger role in the film.

Sadly, the search loses much of its urgency once Sage”s very corporate and business savvy mother Judy appears.  Credit goes to Marcia Gay Harden for finding a way to make her more one-note than she initially appears on the page, but the difficult relationship between Judy and Elle is the one major cliché Weitz simply can”t avoid (Surprise! They don't get along because she's the exact opposite of her mom!  Or, maybe they are more alike than they think!).  What”s lingers most, of course, is Tomlin”s performance.

The legendary comedienne is refreshingly wonderful in a role that plays perfectly to her strengths as an actress.  Tomlin has the rare ability to allow Elle”s condescending one-liners to hit hard while still allowing her emotional insecurity seep through the cracks of that rough, protective exterior.  The film never really explains where Elle”s tough personality comes from, but it doesn”t really have to.  A lesbian who raised a daughter alongside her lover decades before it even became semi-commonplace?  Perhaps some in the audience won”t realize it (Sage certainly doesn”t), but Tomlin makes sure Elle wears that accomplishment as a badge of honor. 

The fact Tomlin is so good also highlights the film's biggest problem.  Too much of what works in “Grandma” comes from the subtle touches Tomlin, Elliott and Harden bring to their characters, not Weitz”s script (this severely affects Garner who has trouble making Sage as interesting as her grandmother let alone her mother).   And, by the time the movie reaches its predictable end, that”s even too much for Tomlin”s considerable talents to overcome.

“Grandma” opens in limited release on Friday.