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    Lily Tomlin Delivers Laughs, Cogent Observations in Grandma

    garyLily Tomlin is poignant and hilarious as Elle, the acerbic title character in Grandma. This enjoyable lark, written and directed by Paul Weitz, gives the iconic comedienne a juicy role, one she was born to play, and Tomlin tears into it with the gusto of a pit bull with a chew toy.

    The film opens with an ending: Elle, a poet and “unemployed academic,” is breaking up with her much younger girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer). Elle’s deadpan response to the relationship’s failure, “I need to vacuum,” is both funny and telling; it completely brushes aside Olivia’s feelings and masks the deeper pain Elle feels but is too proud perhaps to express.

    The story begins in earnest when Elle’s granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), turns up on her doorstep hoping to get $630 for an abortion. Sage does not want to tell her bossy mother, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), about her pregnancy, and hopes her grandma can help her resolve her problem quickly and discretely. Elle is sympathetic, but she doesn’t have the money. She cut up her credit cards after paying off $27,000 debt in hospital bills for her late lover.

    Thus, the two women embark on a local, daylong road trip to visit various women and a man (Sam Elliot) whom Elle has known over the years and who might be able to help them out with a loan.

    Grandma is a slight, contrived story, but it yields many pleasures, most notably when Tomlin is dispensing bracingly funny one-liners, from throwaway jokes about “rapidly approaching 50,” to about how assholes make her angry. The film is more than just a fantastic showcase for the actress. It provides a chance for Tomlin to play a lesbian character who was part of the feminist movement and who now lives in a world where her own granddaughter does not know who Betty Friedan is.

    Weitz’s smart, quick-witted script mines much of its humor from Elle’s droll responses to the younger generation. Tomlin plays the irascible character as someone who struggled all her life and has little patience for anyone who is not as tough as she is. Case in point: her encounter with Cam (Nat Wolff), the teen who impregnated Sage. He is not very responsible when it comes to dealing with Sage’s situation, and how Elle handles him is a comic highlight.

    When Elle and Sage get into an old Dodge that has trouble starting, it is as much a metaphor for the characters facing a moment of difficulty as it is foreshadowing car trouble later. The script is never subtle, but neither is Elle, who gets to beat up a character and also take a punch. The film’s physical comedy is amusing because the players tackle their roles with noticeable relish. The verbal dexterity is an asset as well. Sage calls Elle a “philanthrope” when she means misanthrope, and there are discussions about the term “slut” that provide some intergenerational female-centric bonding.

    The film also offers some terrific supporting moments, as when Elle visits with her old friend, Deathy (Laverne Cox), a tattoo parlor artist, in the hopes of collecting some cash. Their exchange, in which the women reminisce about old times, is lovely if all too brief. Cox has such a warm presence that viewers will want more of her, but at a brisk 79 minutes, Grandma needs to keep moving.

    Another key episode involves Elle paying a call on Karl (Sam Elliott), a man she once loved and lived with, and whom Elle dubs “the ogre.” Their conversation, about how their lives have changed over the past thirty years, and what they owe one another, is especially touching. Weitz mines this scene for humor as well, with the pair smoking a joint together, as a way of remembering their past and dealing with the present. More importantly, the encounter provides Elle with some soul-searching moments that Sage can also relate to. The parallels add a layer of poignancy.

    If Sage’s character is the force that drives the story, she is more a straight (wo)man for Elle, who bulldozes her way into every scene. A visit to a cafe where her friend Carla (the late Elizabeth Peña) works has Elle acting out and lashing out, leaving a stunned Sage in her wake. It shows how Elle’s behavior is not always admirable.

    If the story is episodic, Grandma is consistently fun because Tomlin makes Elle’s hard demeanor refreshing. When Judy enters the picture—and Marcia Gay Harden plays the protective momma bear role to the shrewish hilt—there perhaps is a justification for Elle’s attitude, but the mother/daughter bonds seem real.

    The film thankfully does not cop out in its final moments, even when it threatens to become warm and fuzzy. Grandma delivers the laughs thanks to Tomlin’s crackerjack timing and its cogent observations about feminism and sisterhood.

    © 2015 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer