If there were three words I’d use to describe Paul Weitz’s film “Grandma,” they’d be smart, sarcastic and sensitive. They’d also be the words I’d use to describe Lily Tomlin, a comedienne I’ve loved for 50 years who plays the title role of “Grandma”. Elle Reid is a woman who embarks on a road-trip journey into her past to secure money for her granddaughter Sage’s (Julia Garner) abortion in the course of a few hours’ time. Because I grew up loving Tomlin’s work and what I liked so much about “Grandma” seems to be rooted in ‘S’ words, I figured I’d have fun telling you about how much I liked this movie by stealing from the TV show I grew up watching- “Sesame Street.”
Sesame Street & Saturday Night Live: The first time I saw Lily Tomlin was in 1975, the first season of Saturday Night Live. In SNL’s first season, Jim Henson’s Muppets had their own skits and I remember Tomlin hosting (having gained fame for her work on Rowan and Martin’s “Laugh-In” portraying characters like the precocious, rocking-chair bound child Edith Ann who spouted outrageous stories ending with the tagline “That’s the truth” and also just coming off of her Academy Award nomination for supporting actress in Robert Altman’s “Nashville”) and hugging a Muppet at the end of the skit. From that moment, I liked Tomlin and wanted to know more about her.
Stand-up comedy: I also grew up listening to 8-track tapes of stand-up comedians. Among the tapes of Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, George Carlin and Steve Martin, there was only one woman: Lily Tomlin. I listened to her 1972 record “This is a Recording” featuring her nasal-toned, sarcastic laugh-induced snorting telephone operator Ernestine and knew Tomlin was a talent. For me, her array of characters in the following years such as Judith Beasley, Susie the Sorority Girl, and Tess/Trudy the Bag Lady laid the foundation and set the template for female performers like Whoopi Goldberg, Tracey Ullman, Gilda Radner and Kristen Wiig. Yeah, Tomlin was a pioneer.
September & Sam: Now that the fall season is here, this is the time when moviegoers can look forward to seeing what studios will release to cull nominations for Academy Awards. “Grandma” is no exception and the title role is tailor-made for Tomlin. Apart from being everything I’ve mentioned before, it’s a movie that movingly lifts more layers into Elle’s character as the film progresses. Elle, a once-celebrated poet who mourns the loss of her domestic partner Violet, sporadically gives lectures and uses temporary teaching gigs to support herself. She is forced to confront her past by leaving her isolated lifestyle to secure the money for her granddaughter. The best scenes and acting highlights of “Grandma” come in Elle’s reconnection with her ex-husband Karl (Sam Elliott). Having left Karl 30 years prior for Violet, their whimsical reunion becomes an emotional rollercoaster. The usually-stoic Elliott gives an Oscar-worthy performance- the pain and betrayal he emotes is something you’ve never seen him do and galvanizes you in its gravity. Tomlin and Elliott’s scenes together alone are worth the price of admission and their performances deserve Oscar consideration.
Statuettes & the Seventies: “Grandma” is a film that reminded me of four films: in terms of the character of Elle, I thought of John Cassavetes’ 1980 film “Gloria” with Gena Rowlands and Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film “Lost in Translation” with Bill Murray- Elle’s character is a tough, seasoned, street-smart woman that I haven’t seen on-screen since Rowlands portrayed the former gun moll dredging up her illicit past to save a little boy; as for sly, sensitive sarcasm, Tomlin’s work is as good as Murray’s in “Translation.” For its structure of a veteran comedian in a road movie, “Grandma” would not be out of place with 1971’s “Kotch” with Walter Matthau or 1974’s “Harry and Tonto” with Art Carney. Rowlands, Murray, Matthau and Carney were all nominated for Academy Awards and Carney won the Oscar for Best Actor, so my hopes are high for Tomlin come Oscar-time.
At an 82-minute running time, to tell you too much about “Grandma’s” story might not allow you to fully appreciate the experience of just how nicely its characters develop with each of the film’s unfolding facets. Suffice it to say, I enjoyed all of the actors involved (which include Marcia Gay Harden and Judy Greer) and felt nostalgic for the time when studio movies embraced the emotions and scenarios we now find resigned mostly to independent films.
In short, my last letter ‘S’ word concerning “Grandma” is this- see it.