Lily Tomlin Can’t Save ‘Grandma’ From its Uneven Mix of Heart and Humor

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We all have quirky family members that are beloved by some and hated by others. Grandma, the latest film by writer-director Paul Weitz, tries to find that mixture of comedy and drama in its story of a misanthropic grandmother trying help her granddaughter raise the funds for an abortion over the course of an afternoon. What seems like it might be an ideal vehicle for Lily Tomlin, roaming around Los Angeles and getting into spats with a variety of people, starts out charming enough before nestling into the comforts of its formula – drive, argue, tears, and then reconciliation.

The opening of Grandma has Elle (Tomlin) arguing with her younger girlfriend of four months, Olivia (Judy Greer). Elle is an “unemployed academic” who lost her partner of many years to an illness months prior. After Olivia leaves, angered by the callous insults Elle has hurled her way, Elle finds herself feeling nostalgic, going through mementos when she’s suddenly visited by her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner). Sage is pregnant and needs money for an abortion. Sage cannot ask from help from her controlling mother. An old school feminist, Elle is willing to help her granddaughter. But Elle has no money to lend. She’s shredded her credit cards and is light on cash. So the two women drive around Los Angeles looking to scrounge up enough money for Sage’s abortion.

Grandma plays out like a series of vignettes with diminishing returns. Earlier vignettes, like when Elle and Sage visit a coffee shop that was once an abortion clinic, are really quite comical, as Tomlin spews outrageous insults at a subdued John Cho. Another good little scene is when Elle confronts the deadbeat teen that impregnated her teenage daughter, played by Nat Wolff. But from there the comedy slowly fades from Grandma’s frames, replaced with a dramatic tinge that never really quite hits its intended target. These short moments featuring Laverne Cox, Sam Elliot, Marcia Gay Harden, and Elizabeth Peña each fall flat for separate reasons, but each completely turn their back on the humorous element established earlier in the film.

Lily Tomlin does give a fine performance in the film, but the rough edges of her character are smoothed over by some rather ham-fisted writing that feels obligated to give an elder misanthrope the quest for redemption. It certainly doesn’t help Tomlin’s character that she’s opposite a complete nonentity of a character. Julia Garner may very well be a fine actress, but the character of Sage as written by Weitz is complete blank, a character that seems to have no real agency. Frankly, it’s nothing more than a middle-aged man’s vision of how a panicked teenage girl might react. Over the course of the relatively short running time, these two character never build that bond with the audience as they stop off at various locations featuring a sliding scale of eccentrics.

Having previously directed films as diverse as American Pie and About a Boy, writer-director Paul Weitz is never able to find that right mixture of heart and humor with Grandma. It takes a nice performance from Lily Tomlin and drowns it out with characters of varying ineptitude and situations that go from mildly amusing to ineffectual. Grandma is also a movie that revolves around a family setting aside their differences and coming together following a teenage girl’s abortion; pro-choice or pro-life doesn’t really enter into why that’s just kind of weird. But that odd mixture is why it’s best to remain estranged from Grandma.

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