Teen movies have gotten a lot of mileage out of the “24 hours that changed everything” storyline, but it’s a great device for films about older characters as well, whether it’s Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” or Woody Allen’s homage “Deconstructing Harry.”
Writer-director Paul Weitz, after a string of duds that includes “Admission” and “American Dreamz,” officially gets his groove back by teaming up with Lily Tomlin on “Grandma,” which allows the actress a rare opportunity to paint with all the colors in her seasoned palette. As Tomlin’s Elle spends a day driving around Los Angeles and catching up with friends and estranged family members, she and Weitz bring a rich character to full life.
Elle used to be a poet back in the 1970s, but it’s been ages since she’s written anything new. (In an argument with her just-dumped ex-girlfriend Olivia, played by Judy Greer, the younger woman spits “Writer-in-residence!” as a cutting insult.) Years after the death of her wife, Elle drives Olivia away and doesn’t talk much with her own daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), so it’s a surprise when granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner, “The Americans”) comes calling to ask to borrow $600 for an abortion.
Having just paid all her debts – and having made a wind chime out of her cut-up credit cards – Elle doesn’t have the cash on her, and both she and Sage know that while Judy’s good for the money, a scolding from her sharp tongue is best avoided at all costs. After it’s clear that Sage’s idiot boyfriend Cam (Nat Wolff, “Paper Towns”) isn’t going to cough up the scratch, Elle and her granddaughter set out in Elle’s vintage Dodge to get the money together before Sage’s appointment later that afternoon.
Among those Elle approaches, unsuccessfully, are Deathy (Laverne Cox), a tattoo artist; feminist diner owner Carla (the late Elizabeth Peña); and Karl (Sam Elliott), who played a larger role in Elle’s past than is immediately apparent. “Grandma” is a tightly conceived road picture, one that allows us a glimpse into Elle’s past while showing us how and where her relationships went wrong (and occasionally right) over the years.
It’s not fair to say that Tomlin has never been better, but it’s accurate to note that few roles have given her this much to perform. She’s a consummate scene-stealer, and her comedic rapport with Jane Fonda is about the only reason to watch her Netflix series “Grace and Frankie,” but Weitz lets Tomlin loose on the architecture of a complicated, lovable, hate-able, exasperating, irascible and ultimately dependable woman, and it’s extraordinary to behold.
Also given more to do here than usual is Elliott – for several decades now, he’s been the kind of reliable supporting actor whose success has more to do with presence than anything else: He turns up in a movie, we know we’re going to get a moment of Sam Elliott being Sam Elliott, and it’s going to be great, just like it was when Gary Cooper or Cary Grant showed up to play the recognized screen version of themselves. Here, Elliott actually gets a character to play – a funny, wounded, angry, longing character, and he totally nails it. In just a few scenes, he creates one of the richest screen personae he’s ever been given.
The whole ensemble makes the most of their opportunities: Greer finally gets a three-dimensional character in a Summer 2015 movie, Garner more than holds her own against her seasoned co-stars, Harden finds the humanity in a character that could easily have been a two-dimensional harpy, and even veteran Colleen Camp creates comic gold from the bit part of a customer trying desperately to get waitress Olivia’s attention during a spat with Elle.
Cinematographer Tobias Datum (“Smashed”) eschews L.A. cliché, giving us an urban landscape that’s capable of both great beauty (Karl has a gorgeous house in the hills with a huge lawn) and bland blight, and he manages to blot the sun out of this grey day, filled with complications and setbacks.
“Grandma” is both smart and sweet, mature and bawdy, knowing its characters’ flaws yet open to the possibilities of people acting upon their best instincts. It is without a doubt one of the year’s best films, even as it lands in theaters amidst the late-summer doldrums.