January 19, 2016

“You’re just a footnote,” Lilly Tomlin callously tells her girlfriend as she casts her aside at the start of Grandma, a movie that seems to believe the same thing about its plot. The main reason to see this movie is to see the excellent Lilli Tomlin in a leading role for the first time in almost three decades. 

Supported by a string of other well-known and well-liked faces (Judy Greer, Laverne Cox, Elizabeth Pena) this movie takes a slight, light look at motherhood and those who assert their right not to enter it right now, while also touching on the fall out of choice, loss and what’s left standing following the aftershocks of different waves of feminism.

A grandmother and granddaughter hit the road in a battered Buick when the later turns up on the formers doorstep, knocked up and not wanting to be.

Unfortunately, Grandma Elle is mid-existential crisis, brought on by having just cleared the debt left behind by the death of her life partner. Her final obligation and link to her one true love now gone, there’s a hole where her misanthropy once flourished and a tuneless wind chime comprised of her cut up credit cards blows in the arid, California wind.So she has to crowd-fund Sage’s termination, through her friends and associates. 

There’s the trans tattoo artist whose breasts she paid to fix; the lesbian coffee shop owner who expressed an interest in her first editions of feminist texts; a lecherous- if wronged, former flame (Sam Elliot) and her own daughter, the exceptional Marcia Gay Harden, the missing link between Elle’s righteous anger and Sage’s clueless need. 

In between there are poignant points made on the rolling back on advances in women’s rights- from the ways the different generations insult one another, to the fact that a free clinic is now a shitty coffee shop, and unnecessary villainy made of one character who refuses to fund the abortion.

It’s a set up that could have been used to show that a woman’s choice is an individual one, but it can have a terrible emotional and long-lasting effects on others.

Instead Director Paul Weitz uses it to further flap the movies bias, one anybody going to see Grandma is going to be sympathetic to… and an argument made and won by much of what came before it. It feels like a cheap shot at a valid response, where an important –and perhaps not particularly pleasant side of Elle’s character, could have been explored. Something the movie seems afraid of going near. For someone who pisses so many people off, Elle is constantly such great company.

Instead it further strengthens my belief that Grandma is just a vehicle to deliver Lilly Tomlin back into the spotlight, allowing her to cruise in the best possible gear, rather than existing as a rounded, funny mediation on a pertinent topic. Had another actress neglected by time played the same part –Julie Christie, say or Jane Fonda, the movie wouldn’t have clicked.

As aims go, though, having Tomlin back in the spotlight ain’t a bad one, and while you long for the movie to have a bit more bite, a bit more to say for itself, anytime spent with such an astonishing talent can only be described as time well spent.


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