There are some moments, big or small, that trigger a widespread reflection on one’s own life in all its crazy, unpredictable and glorious inevitability.
One problem or struggle often awakens a series of reflections on life’s skeletons and shining moments. It’s this grace of the imperfect life that lives in the center of director/writer Paul Weitz’s new film, “Grandma.” And Weitz has a lot to reflect on.
“Grandma” is his 10th feature film, and it shows a rare maturity and confidence in a director that has had to jump back and forth between disparate genres and films, such as “American Pie,” “Antz,” “About a Boy,” “Little Fockers,” “Being Flynn,” “Admission” and the mouthful “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant.”
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“Grandma” also represents a triumphant moment for one of Hollywood’s most underrated actress: Lily Tomlin. A Tony, Emmy, and Grammy Award-winning stand-up comedian and actress, Tomlin has become an institution in the cultural firmament. She’s even a member of the America’s veritable comedy hall of fame: the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.Awarded since 1998, Tomlin is in rarified company along with fellow honorees Richard Pryor, Carl Reiner, Bob Newhart, Whoopi Goldberg, Lorne Michaels and Steve Martin.
However, though she’s been on screen since 1975, with stellar performances in “Nashville,” “Nine to Five,” “I Heart Huckabees” and “A Prairie Home Companion,” Tomlin has only received one Oscar nomination with “Nashville” in 1975. In just a little more than an hour’s time, Tomlin eviscerates any ageist stigma or apprehension. Her performance scales the lows and highs between nostalgic happiness and cold heartbreak. Tomlin is that rare performer in film with the deft ability to flow effortlessly between intense drama and sarcastic comedy and be completely believable.
And in a way, though, this is hardly autobiographical, “Grandma” lets Tomlin mine the equal amount of mistakes and joys of a well-lived life. Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a feminist, lesbian poet with an up-and-down career, which decades ago flirted with mainstream success but ended up a lackluster trek through university English departments, a dysfunctional relationship with her daughter Judy (Maricia Gay Harden), the love of her life Violet and $45 to her name.
The film takes place during one day throughout Los Angeles, as Elle’s precocious granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) arrives unannounced in need of her grandma’s help. She’s 10 weeks pregnant and needs upwards of $600 for her 5:45 p.m. appointment at a local clinic. And in this one day in L.A., Weitz weaves a simple, yet emotional journey through the people in Elle and Sage’s present and past, including Sage’s pot-stained ex-boyfriend Cam (Nat Wolff, “Paper Towns” and “The Fault in Out Stars”), Elle’s friend and personal tattoo artist Deathy (a charming Laverne Cox) and ultimately, Judy, Sage’s mom.
The highlight of this crosstown journey and relationship ricochet is Elle and Sage going to Elle’s ex-husband Karl for money. Karl (played by a surprisingly deep yet deceptive Sam Elliott) is still torn over Elle leaving him in the middle of the night all those years ago. The exchange between Tomlin and Elliott is painfully genuine. While unearthing skeletons from their respective pasts, old age, even after having a fulfilling life, still has land mines of regret and despair that can be triggered at a moment’s notice.
Weitz’s camera is completely comfortable in tracking this one-day odyssey. A mix of comedy and documentary, one hopes Weitz sticks with these simple and self-contained human narratives. He captures the trapeze act of everyday life that constantly bounces between levity and grief with every interaction. And with Tomlin at the helm, burning with sarcasm and melancholy, we all become her grandchildren as she guides us through the highs and hollows that still await all of us.