Director Paul Weitz has a confusing list of credits. The only connection I can draw between his works (which include American Pie, About a Boy, Down to Earth, Little Fockers, and Being Flynn) is that they tend to be underwhelming films with phenomenal casts. There’s nothing particularly distinct about Weitz’s aesthetic or choice in projects, but he has had the good fortune of working with such diverse talents as Robert DeNiro, Chris Rock, Tina Fey, Scarlett Johansson, Willem Dafoe, John C. Reilly, Dustin Hoffman, Barbara Streisand, Paul Dano, Julianne Moore, and the list goes on. Too bad few (if any) of his films have been worthy of the talent involved. It’s no surprise, then, that I was drawn to the theater for Weitz’s latest picture, Grandma, based on the strength of its two leads alone. It’s also no surprise that the film was okay at best & survived solely on the strength of its lead performances & long list of cameos. If Weitz has a shtick or a calling card as a director, that reaction was pretty much par for the course.
Always dependable comedian Lily Tomlin plays Grandma‘s titular matriarch, a misanthropic lesbian poet who was “marginally well known 40 years ago”, but now suffers an over-the-hump slump of nonproductive self-deprecation in the wake of her longtime partner’s death. Saddled with the lingering debt of her deceased partner’s medical bills, Tomlin’s poet protagonist barely gets by on one-off gigs as a guest lecturer on college campuses. This perilous financial situation is strained even more by the unexpected appearance of her teenage granddaughter Sage (Electrick Children‘s Julia Garner), who only has a few hours to raise over 600 dollars for an appointment to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. What results is a sort of Day in the Life roadtrip comedy-drama as Sage tags along on her miserly grandma’s attempts to hit up ghosts from her past for spare cash. Grandma not quite as funny or as transgressive as the multi-generational roadtrip debauchery-fest Tammy or the frank abortion comedy Obvious Child, but it is a mildly enjoyable picture that leaves room for welcome extended cameos from folks like Laverne Cox, Judy Greer, John Cho, and Sam Elliott, not to mention the killer lead performances from Tomlin & Garner.
When I say that the cast is what drew me to the theater for Grandma, what I really meant is that I wanted to see more from Julia Garner, who was absolutely stellar in Electrick Children, a film I loved enough at first sight to be the first title included in The Swampflix Canon. She’s honestly just as effective here, even if the quality of the material is far from comparable. Grandma is, of course, also a rare treat as a star-vehicle for Lily Tomlin, who hasn’t headlined a film in nearly three decades. Tomlin is funny enough in the titular role, but her character is a bit much to handle for long stretches of time, given her tendency to slip into curmudgeony rants about Kids These Days with their Googles & their Ebays & whatnots. In a telling exchange, Tomlin’s flower child poet is annoyed that her granddaughter has never heard of The Feminine Mystique, while Sage is equally annoyed that her grandma doesn’t know that Mystique is also an X-Men character. It’s not too hard to see who the film sides with there.
Worse yet are casual platitudes like, “I like being old. Young people are stupid,” “Where can you get a reasonably priced abortion these days?”, and the biting, career-specific insult, “You’re a footnote.” Tomlin’s protagonist is the first to admit that she’s “a horrible person”, but her constant attempts to be seen as a hip grandma (including her dragonfly tattoo, her old Dodge hotrod, casual marijuana use, and incongruous affinity for rap music), all downplay the heft of those statements. Although they’re given a lot less to do, most of the film’s pathos is conveyed through turns from Julia Garner, Sam Elliott, and Judy Greer, who help balance out Tomlin’s more jaded notes of emotional detachment, age-specific bitterness, and outdated feminism. Grandma is an enjoyable, modest film with its own interesting visual language (poetic in the dragonfly imagery, subtly funny in visual gags that include a polar bear painting & a toy Jeep) as well as an admirably casual/balanced approach to its themes of abortion & sexual autonomy. If you’re looking for a calm, pleasant picture with a rarely-seen featured performance from either Tomlin or Garner, Grandma is serviceable. As with everything else I’ve seen from Weitz, it’s a decent enough film with a stacked cast of actors that could probably do much better. I’m not sure that the film would pass The Gene Siskel Test (“Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?”), but at the very least it’s a close call.