“Grandma” Needs a Defibrillator

Grandma

Grandma (Paul Weitz, 2015)

How I wanted to like this movie (despite its lackluster trailer). I love Lily Tomlin (most recently seen on Netflix’s Grace and Frankie). Not long ago, she appeared on Public Radio International’s Studio 360 to discuss her long career (born in 1939, she made her initial mark on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in 1970), and I was reminded of all of the quirky humor she brings to most of her performances. Unfortunately, Grandma – though by no means terrible – does not allow much room for her to perform, at all. I blame director Paul Weitz (About a Boy), since most of the actors give lazy turns, with one notable exception: Sam Elliott (I’ll See You in My Dreams). And when he’s on screen, Tomlin ups her game, as well.

Grandma tells the story of young high-school student Sage – played by Julia Garner (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), not up to the task – who shows up on her grandmother’s doorstep on the day when Grandma (Tomlin) has just broken up with her much younger girlfriend, Olivia – played by Judy Greer (“Archer“), who is always good, no matter what. Grandma – otherwise known as Elle – is a once-well-known poet who has just paid off all medical debts from her longtime – now deceased – partner’s illness. As a consequence, she has no money, and Sage needs over $600 for an abortion. She won’t go to her mother, Judy – played, eventually, by a very strident Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock) – since Mom is everything Grandma is not: uptight, moralistic and structured. It’s too bad, though, because Mom also has money.

So off Sage and Elle go, in search of friends-of-Grandma to shake down for long-ago debts owed, stopping off at the boyfriend’s house first, where said lunkhead threatens the old lady and gets his butt kicked for his pains. In scene after scene, we find occasionally witty bits of sketch comedy and drama that are just as often weighed down by pedestrian direction. There is very little life on screen. It’s as if Weitz were content to have scored Tomlin as his star, only to then forget that a director must guide the actors. So it comes as a sudden surprise when, in a last-ditch effort, Elle drags Sage to an old (male) flame of her own, and we meet Karl (Elliott), who bears a huge grudge towards Elle for how she left him and then wrote about him in a poem. In their scene together, we see what might have been. We feel their history, and actual emotions flow between two human beings. It’s a wonder.

The rest of the film – divided into six parts, each labelled as if in a poem by Elle (1. endings, 2. ink, 3. apes, etc.) – has its few moments of spark, but mostly it fizzles. When Elle and Judy reach their reconciliation – of sorts – at the end, it has long been expected, and so fails to pack an emotional punch. I wish there were more to recommend here, but at least there’s Grace and Frankie available for binge-watching at home. That’s not exactly an amazing series, itself, but Tomlin is much better in it than she is here.

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