Writer-director Paul Weitz’s Grandma, a proudly boisterous star vehicle for Lily Tomlin, has about as many ambitions as it does delusions. It’s a road movie, it’s a feminist movie, it’s a family movie, it’s an old-curmudgeon movie, it’s a lesbian movie. The latter is easily the California-set dramedy’s most successful angle, as it’s the only one that never feels forced into existence. Elle (Tomlin) is an aging poet who’s still mourning the death of her longtime partner, Violet, and who’s taken to militant anti-establishment activities, like cutting her credit cards to make wind chimes after paying off debts. The film begins and ends with the exploration of Elle’s new relationship with Olivia (Judy Greer), her significantly younger former student who’s as open and forgiving as Elle is closed and disgruntled. The story’s lesbianism is graciously treated as a nonissue, despite it being the most openly gay film for the long un-closeted Tomlin. For that and other reasons, it feels like a career high for the actress, but that’s not exactly a good reason to go and see it.
Grandma’s inciting incident isn’t Elle and Olivia’s breakup in the first scene, but a request that comes immediately after from Elle’s granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), a pregnant teen with nowhere else to turn in her search to fund an abortion. In both exchanges, and in far too many moments that follow, Weitz encourages Tomlin to do Tomlin to the hilt, exaggerating every joke, expletive, and affectation to a degree that would be unwatchable if Tomlin weren’t such an innately gifted performer. (A scene in a café where Elle harasses a barista is one of the more memorable cases of comic bitchery for comic bitchery’s sake.) After some reluctance, a voluntarily broke Elle agrees to help Sage via the solicitation of old friends, kicking off a trip down memory lane that’s partly an excuse to bring in guest stars. Some, like a superb Sam Elliot as Elle’s experimental ex, Karl, make for lovely additions to the cast, bringing a weathered sadness that’s both heartbreaking and sexy. Others, like Laverne Cox as a shrill tattoo artist, feel like stunt casting—flagrant tools to bring diversity and credibility to a film that needn’t try so hard.
The film ultimately falls apart because it never finds landing points for its two key arcs. It’s firstly aiming to be a tale of redemption, wherein an old, world-weary bitch reclaims her humanity after helping her granddaughter. But unlike so many movies with male leads whose characters shed their grumpy skins, Grandma is too hung up on making Elle funny to make her truly unpleasant. Thus, while Tomlin seems to know the complex nuances of this character, and shares them in flashes when not going over the top, Elle’s growth isn’t earned or gathered so much as tacked on, for the woman we’re meant to learn to love was never once hateable to start with.
Meanwhile, though Grandma has every apparent intention of wiping the shame away from a woman taking command of her own body (spoilers herein), it unwittingly treats issues of pregnancy and maternity as part of some fateful, genetically passed-down disease. As Elle continues to hunt down cash to pay for Sage’s abortion appointment, we learn that Elle once had an abortion herself, and in addition, that her daughter, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), was the result of a one-night stand. We also learn that Judy gave birth to Sage via a sperm donor, as she wanted nothing to do with a father who may perhaps disappoint. What’s clearly meant as a bond-forming lineage of sisters—or rather, mothers—doing it for themselves instead comes off as a self-defeating, hyper-melodramatic tale of over-spiked feminism, no matter how well the actors strive to sell the material. In Grandma, there’s a sense of pity where empowerment should be, and an overall sense of lost opportunity where fulfillment should be.