Film & Television

Don’t Mess with ‘Grandma’: Lily Tomlin Delivers in Her Latest Role

Elle, the new movie’s eponymous grandmother speaks with much the same voice. But, while Tomlin has always tempered her cynicism with wonder and joy, Elle is just in a really bad mood. She’s still mourning the death of her long-time partner Violet. She’s effectively estranged from her type A daughter, bitter about her unfulfilled potential as a poet, and just plain mean to her adoring younger girlfriend. Fortunately for everyone, her doorbell rings. Unfortunately, it’s her granddaughter Sage who needs a loan — $630, to be specific; for an abortion, to be even more specific. In their attempts to raise the funds, both women learn more about themselves and each other.

Tomlin is tough to keep up with, but dewy young Julia Garner holds her own in scene after scene. The two spar when their age difference becomes painfully obvious (Sage thinks The Feminine Mystique is a character from X-Men), but they clearly love and support each other. In fact, Elle beats the crap out of Sage’s deadbeat boyfriend with a hockey stick before taking money and some dope from his sock drawer.

Weitz chose other big talents for relatively small roles, but each is a complete and perfect performance. Marcia Gay Harden, as Elle’s daughter and Sage’s mother, seems a bit of an over-caffeinated stereotype at first (we meet her in a power suit, multitasking at a treadmill desk), but she evolves into a nuanced and surprisingly sympathetic character. Laverne Cox is memorable as a tattoo artist with a heart and the late Elizabeth Peña made the most of her part as the owner of a feminist bookstore cafe.

Judy Greer, one of the industry’s hardest-working actresses who never gets a leading role (she’s perpetually the heroine’s best friend), does deep, honest work here as Elle’s girlfriend. I hope it helps her break out and get the screen time she deserves. And Sam Elliott, as a man from Elle’s past, is convincingly — and somehow simultaneously — nostalgic, amorous and angry.

But, with all of these pros rounding out the cast, Grandma remains Tomlin’s star vehicle. The movie is just under an hour and a half, but she delivers in that short time. Her wise-cracking one-liners are tempered by a real sense of loss and vulnerability, whether she’s looking at old photos or crying in the shower after her latest break-up. She’s also a powerful protector, shielding her granddaughter from anti-abortion protesters with unexpected and frankly funny results.

Abortion is front and center in Grandma, but it isn’t what I would call “an abortion movie.” In fact, the topic is handled carefully and with respect. A world-weary feminist, Elle understands that a woman’s right to choose is necessary but not something to celebrate. When Sage apologizes for crying, Elle rebukes her, “If you don’t cry about this, what the hell are you going to cry about?”

Lily Tomlin just turned 76. It’s tempting to point to Grandma and Grace and Frankie and use words like “late in life career resurgence.” Elle isn’t the breakthrough she’s been waiting for. It’s simply a great role for a truly great talent, who happens to be in her 70s.

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