If you savor the chance to watch a masterful actress at the top of her craft, rush to see a touching film about a woman confronting the consequences of her choices. The movie is Grandma and the actress is the inimitable Lily Tomlin. Get ready to hear her name at Oscar time.
At first glance, the story seems simple. A woman starts her day ending a relationship. Just as she begins to sort things out, her granddaughter rings the doorbell. She’s having a tough day, too. The young woman reveals she is having a baby and plans to terminate the pregnancy that afternoon. She needs money for the procedure. But grandma is short on cash after paying off debts and turning her credit cards into a wind chime. So the two begin a day chasing memories, resolving relationships and confronting choices in search of money and closure.
Such a setup leads to an entertaining look at the dynamics of cross-generational relationships. But that’s not all that Grandma is about. In just 79 minutes this lovely film delivers a character study of epic proportions as writer/director Paul Weitz explores a fascinating woman who views the final chapters of her life with clarity as she confronts her disappointments. In each situation the ladies face — from tending to a car that needs repair to visiting with a former husband to the inevitable confrontation with family — Weitz delves into how this woman, so strong and clear in her beliefs, can become so easily confused when facing the possibility of disappointing someone she loves.
The role and story give Tomlin the chance to deliver a performance of magnificent scope within the confines of a 79-minute road film. At moments she radiates the charm — especially when she smiles — that we have cherished for decades; minutes later she surprises with a dramatic discovery that pierces with precision. In every gesture or glance Tomlin reveals something essential about a most interesting lady who refuses to consider that she is special. The actress builds the performance with economy, never overdoing a line reading or going for a cheap chuckle. It’s not so much that Tomlin acts the role with perfection; rather, for 79 minutes, she inhabits this woman. And, as people lucky enough to be in the theater, we leave feeling we have spent a marvelous time getting to know a fascinating lady. This is a career-topping performance from a special actress.
Tomlin shares the screen with strong actors who make the most of their moments on screen. Sam Elliott — fresh from a role in I’ll See You in My Dreams — brings emotional power to a resonating reunion with grandma — while Marcia Gay Harden delivers a cynical charisma to her rendition of the disconnected daughter. As the granddaughter Sage, Julia Garner uses vulnerability and openness to make the character an ideal counterpart to Tomlin’s irresistible presence.
When too many movies overpromise, Grandma delivers more than it advertises. This is a remarkable film for what it creates within 79 minutes. And the memory of Lily Tomlin’s performance will last a long time. She reminds us how much we cherish every characters she creates.
“Film Nutritional Value” : Grandma
(5 Popcorn Buckets)
* Content: High. This look at a grand woman’s life explores how people can confront the consequences of their choices.
* Entertainment: High. Thanks to a remarkable cast, and an insightful script, the film says a lot about what it takes to authentically live.
* Message: High. Because the film makes us think as it entertains, we are left with a clear view of what it takes to live with truth instead of illusion.
* Relevance: High. Any opportunity to introduce our older children to the issues of decisions and their consequences is a welcome visit to the movies.
* Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film with your older children, talk about the realities of embracing truth as we make choices.
(Grandma is rated R for language and some drug use. The film runs 79 minutes.)
Let’s Talk Movies
by Mark Schumann, The Reel Dad
Since she burst onto the entertainment scene almost 50 years ago – with her creations of Ernestine and Edith Ann – Lily Tomlin has redefined the intersection of standup, theater, television and film as she has freely moved between comedy and drama. While she may have experienced her greatest success on stage and television, until Grandma, she has created a strong collection of characters in films over the years. Here are a few.
Tomlin stunned her fans – who only knew her antics on television in Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In – with her striking dramatic performance in this epic from Robert Altman. In just a few scenes, with minimal dialogue, she uses her great face and wondrous eyes to create the emptiness a mother can experience despite a busy schedule. Her scene watching Keith Carradine seduce the audience (and her) while singing I’m Easy is simply perfect. She was nominated for an Oscar, wore a tierra to the ceremonies, but didn’t win.
The Late Show (1977)
Throughout her career, Tomlin has demonstrated a unique gift to blend comic and drama into a rich portrayal of an eccentric character. Perhaps that’s because she focuses on the character she creates rather than the lines she delivers. In this delicious mystery from Robert Benton, Tomlin delights a marvelous but unusual woman who worries about finding her cat amidst a lot of crime-related comings and goings. Opposite the great Art Carney, Tomlin is funny, quirky and magical.
Nine to Five (1980)
This iconic comedy – that, ironically, was originally intended to be a serious drama – showcases Tomlin in a made-to-order role of a cynical woman trying to get through the routine of the day. While Dolly Parton offers the gags, and Jane Fonda the commentary, Tomlin holds center stage as a woman with a moral center she is willing to stretch now and then. Her fantasy sequence – as a Snow White with an edge – gives the film its comic energy at the same time it offers thought-provoking observations of office life in the 1980s.
All of Me (1984)
While Steve Martin delivers the performance of his career, Tomlin creates another lovable character as a woman with her physical ailments. While Tomlin may defer to Martin for the big laughs, in what is a supporting role, she retains a unique edge that gives the performance real energy. And, as always, she makes an exaggerated situation feel authentic because she finds the truth in the moment. She and Martin make a dynamic duo.
Short Cuts (1993)
Raymond Carver’s story of extreme relationships in Los Angeles gives Robert Altman the chance to create another landmark ensemble film featuring a striking performance from the marvelous Tomlin. As a chain-smoking waitress harboring intense guilt, and letting her imagination run wild, the actress brings real panic to Carver’s exploration of accountability and regret. She should have been nominated for an Oscar for a portrayal that, as in Altman’s Nashville, relies on her non-verbal acting skills to create the character.
A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
Tomlin returns to the wonderful world of Robert Altman in this musical fantasy about a live radio variety show. She and Meryl Streep play a singing duo that still hopes to hit the big time. But age has caught up with the women as they struggle to keep the act fresh and hide the souvenirs of all the years gone by. They are marvelous together, funny, alive and connected. And Tomlin looks like she is having a great time.
Of course, any look at Lily Tomlin is incomplete without mention of her monumental stage show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which is available on DVD, as well as her television appearances on The Magic School Bus, The West Wing and currently on Netflix in Grace and Frankie, for which she is an Emmy nominee.
She is one special lady. Let’s hope Grandma brings her the Oscar recognition she deserves.