It’s been 27 years since Lily Tomlin last had a leading role in a film. Let’s not do that again, okay? In Grandma, the actress both embraces and subtly toys with the archetype of the irascible senior citizen. Her character, Ellie Reid, is liable to brusquely ignore social niceties in favor of “telling it like it is” — she loudly discusses abortion in a sedate coffee shop, then escalates things from 1 to 7 or so after a manager confronts her over it. Yet she knows when to be diplomatic to get what she wants (after all, she has to hit numerous people up for money over the course of this story), and her occasional inability to stop herself from being caustic suggests less that she’s a “don’t give a fuck” old person and more that she has troubling anger issues. Or, in fairness, it could be both.
Movies often have difficulty granting humanity or a recognizable interior life to the elderly, or acknowledging that elderly women even exist. Ellie’s fully-realized development is the greatest strength of writer/director Paul Weitz’s script, which is probably his best since About a Boy. It’s quite skillful at quickly sketching out characters with shorthand. Witness, for instance, the office of Ellie’s daughter, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden): a paragon of modern careerist relentlessness, down to the treadmill desk. And the supporting cast (Harden, Judy Greer, Laverne Cox, and Sam Elliott, among others) works ably with this material. They have to, since the story is mainly a two-woman show between Tomlin and Julia Garner, and most of them only show up for a scene or two.
Garner plays Ellie’s granddaughter, Sage, who kicks off the plot when she shows up on Ellie’s doorstep requesting money for an abortion. Ellie doesn’t have it, having recently cut up her credit card for an art project, and so the pair head out on a quest across Los Angeles, trying to gather the needed 500+ dollars in time for Sage’s appointment. It’s an organic setup for Ellie — still in distress since the death of her wife a year and a half before and her breakup with her latest girlfriend this same morning — to confront various aspects of her past in the form of old friends and acquaintances who might possibly be able to fork over some cash. It’s also an impetus for bonding between Ellie and Sage, as the second-wave feminist and former “marginally well-known” writer imparts wisdom on not taking men’s shit to her granddaughter.
It’s full of nice subtleties, but the screenplay’s comedic elements are serviceable at best, and it often says more than it needs to in explicit dialogue, particularly in regards to Ellie’s past. For all that Weitz trusts his actors, he actually could have stood to do so more. And he’s a better writer than director. Stylistic basicness stands between Grandma and greatness. There’s nothing bad about any of the camerawork or what have you; it’s merely functional to a staid degree. But that doesn’t prevent this from being a perfectly nice movie, and an efficient vehicle for Tomlin.