Grandma (2015) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for language and some drug use
Running Time: 79 min.
Cast: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Judy Greer, Marcia Gay Harden, Sam Elliott, Laverne Cox. Elizabeth Pena
Small role: Nat Wolff, John Cho, Colleen Camp
Director: Paul Weitz
Screenplay: Paul Weitz
Review published September 13, 2015
In her first leading film role in nearly three decades, Lily Tomlin (The Pink Panther 2, The Ant Bully) stars Elle Reid, a once-famous writer and poet active in the feminist movement. Her longtime partner Violet passed away within the last two years, and she's also just broken up a four-month relationship with Olivia (Greer, Jurassic World), a younger woman who adores her, with her usual blunt, insensitive style. Not long after, Elle is visited by her late-teenaged granddaughter Sage (Garner, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For), who has come to ask for money and help in order to get an abortion that she's scheduled for late that afternoon.
Despite not having the hundreds of dollars for the procedure necessary (she's even destroyed her credit cards after using her available money to pay them all off), Elle is bound to help her because her daughter Judy (Harden, Fifty Shades of Grey), Sage's mother, is judgmental, harsh, and mean, and will be beyond livid with Sage should she find out. Reluctantly visiting a group of friends, ex-lovers, and Sage's slacker boyfriend (Wolff, Paper Towns), Elle finds it hard to walk with hat in hand and ask for assistance for something so personal, all the while trying, perhaps in vain, to not burn additional bridges with her sometimes mean-spirited temper.
Paul Weitz (American Dreamz, In Good Company) writes and directs Grandma, which fits in to his already hit-and-miss filmography by being another example of one that entertains with a lot of indulgent overhead. Weitz, whose claim to fame has been in broad-stroke comedies like American Pie, About a Boy, and Little Fockers, seems to be a bit too reserved in his approach to Grandma, which feels a bit too lackadaisical, despite a very short 79-minute run-time. Perhaps that padding one feels in the film is merely there to keep the movie long enough to give it the feature-film release required, or perhaps he's lost a beat or two. Weitz is a better writer than he is a director, as he does offer good characterizations, even if he more than occasionally scripts for contrived gags.
However, his biggest liability is his inability to get great performances from actors already known for being quite talented, as the way they are framed, as well as the dialogue they have to spout, comes off as stiff and manufactured. It's hard to get good comic timing in a movie that one can see the script machinations of throughout. As such, the movie feels like a first-draft, and, with a meager production budget of about $600k, perhaps Weitz just was not afforded the luxury of additional takes and lots of riffing and ad-libbing to score up better jokes on the spot.
The contrivances in the story are difficult to swallow. First, starting with Sage's insistence that the abortion appointment that she has made has to be that day, giving the movie a phony-baloney race-against-time aspect that is never convincing, since a missed appointment due to lack of funds would either proceed with a discussion by the clinic on payment options, or a reschedule. No biggie. Sage gives the excuse that she doesn't often feel well as a result of the pregnancy, so it cannot wait, and we see a couple of occasions in which the girl appears to be nauseous, but in pretty good health otherwise. Even if time is of the essence, a lot of dilly-dallying takes place, including taking the time to drink a pricey coffee in house, and later to sit and get a tattoo. Then there's the grossly negligent grandmother who has only a few dollars to her name after paying off all of her credit card debt because she just was tired of feeling the weight of debt. Rather than save a card for an emergency, she cuts them up and makes a wind chime out of them; I guess emergency cash is not an option from the banks these were issued from, or she never looks into the possibility. Then there's the issue with not telling Sage's mother about the medical procedure because she will strangle her. Both Elle and Sage seem to think Judy is the most reprehensible and judgmental person imaginable, but she seems to be a typically strong single mother when we do learn of Judy, and not remotely prone to acts of physical abuse or venom-spewing vitriol.
Obviously, a subject as touchy as abortion is going to cause a bit of controversy, though given that the film is also about a feminist lesbian matriarch, it's a movie that's likely to draw out almost purely left-leaning audiences generally open to the topic. The movie does depict one argument on the pro-life side from a woman and her young daughter picketing a medical facility where abortions are performed, but the mother is seen as spewing hateful words toward those who cross their path to walk in, in front of her young daughter who is also being introduced to political viewpoints above her ability to understand. There is also another more sympathetic character in the movie who is against supporting abortion -- he doesn't condemn the practice, he just does not wish to support it directly -- based on his own experience with a woman who had gotten pregnant and terminated the pregnancy without telling him. While Grandma is not a political film that is trying to push a pro-choice agenda, it's very clear that the majority of characters in this film are of the opinion that this is a legal alternative for unwanted pregnancies, and firmly a woman's rights issue rather than a right-to-life issue.
However, the film isn't really about the abortion rights as much as it is about the strength of female familial bonds, especially in the cycles of experience that each generation seems to share that unites them into fighting for common causes. When in that mode, there are some subtle and pleasing moments to be found in between the stiffness of the tone and the obviousness in its reaching for either laughs or poignancy. Unfortunately, there's just not enough of those good moments to string along Grandma beyond just being merely watchable, with Weitz either not having the resources to put together a fully realized production, or just has lost his ability to get the most out of the very skillful tools he has at his disposal in his impressive cast.
©2015 Vince Leo