Paul Weitz's low-budget comedy/drama Grandma is divided into six chapters. For the first three of them, I was convinced that I disliked it. By the end of the last one, I had developed something of an affection for it. It's rare that a movie suddenly finds its footing that late in the game, but Grandma is an exception.
Elle Reid (Lily Tomlin, Nashville) is a flinty, foul-mouthed lesbian poet who has just broken up with Olivia (Judy Greer, Arrested Development), her girlfriend of four months. In an attempt to shrug off her hurt feelings, Elle hurls some particularly nasty parting shots at Olivia: “You were just a footnote.” In the wake of this messy personal crisis, Elle gets a surprise visit from her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner, Martha Marcy May Marlene). It seems Sage has gotten pregnant, but doesn't have the money to pay for an abortion and is too frightened to ask her mother (which makes even more sense when you learn that her mother is played by a thunderously stern Marcia Gay Harden, The Mist). Elle doesn't have the money, either, but invites Sage to tag along while she visits a series of friends and acquaintances in an attempt to scrounge up the cash.
This is a reasonably engaging starting point, but much of the film's first half can be described “Lily Tomlin makes a scene and embarrasses her granddaughter in a variety of ways.” They visit a coffee shop, where Tomlin's loud pronouncements about the high cost of abortions these days causes her to get into a ridiculous argument with one of the employees (John Cho, Star Trek). They visit the restaurant where Olivia works, which leads to an angry session of name-calling and childishness. They visit a tattoo artist (Laverne Cox, Orange is the New Black), who doesn't have any money to offer but does give Elle a free tattoo. Tomlin is a great comic actress, but so much of this material reduces her to a wearisome “sassy grandma” stereotype (haha, isn't it funny when old people say and do irreverent things?). Adding insult to injury, the film underlines much of this material with one of those, “This is funny, right?” pizzicato scores.
Then comes chapter four (title: “The Ogre”), and the whole thing turns around. Elle decides to visit Karl (Sam Elliott, The Big Lebowski), the ex-husband she hasn't seen in thirty years (it was the last serious relationship she had with a man before discovering that she was a lesbian). The fact that she's willing to visit him after all this time demonstrates just how few options she has left: getting him to loan her a few bucks is almost certainly going to come with some awfully painful conversations about the past.
Elliott is only in the movie for ten minutes or so, but he brings such extraordinary depth, nuance and pain to his performance that he turns the entire thing around. It's an even more extraordinary supporting turn than his lovely work in I'll See You in My Dreams, another 2015 movie about an older woman at a personal crossroads. After a few reels that felt cheap and artificial, Elliott brings something raw and real to the table, and Tomlin goes there with him. Suddenly, Elle seems less like a crudely-drawn sitcom character and more like a real, complicated human being. She carries that depth with her through the rest of the film, and even the scenes that dip back into silliness manage to feel grounded.
Obviously, abortion (a secondary but prominent theme in the film) is a sensitive subject for a lot of viewers, and audiences will almost certainly feel divided about the film's handling of it (don't expect Sage to have a last-minute change of heart on the matter). Still, it's worth mentioning that the movie allows some of its characters have different feelings on the subject without turning any of them into villains, which is more than most ordinary people seem capable of doing. It's also worth mentioning that the film remains presents Sage's choice without judgment, but also acknowledges the emotional weight of that choice.
The mid-film turnaround isn't enough to prevent the film from predictability – the closing scenes offer precisely the mix of sentimental sweetness and honest realism that you would expect from a standard-issue comedy/drama – but it's enough to make you feel emotionally invested in what happens from there on out, and it gives Tomlin enough room to remind you of why she's such a valuable actress. In the end, it sits comfortably alongside Weitz's Admission and Being Flynn as a film that is neither as rich as it should be nor as insufferable as it could've been.
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 79 minutes
Release Year: 2015