There’s already Oscar buzz surrounding Lily Tomlin’s starring role in “Grandma,” a road trip film that just happens to be the most openly queer project for the long un-closeted lesbian actress. Writer-director Paul Weitz opens the movie by pulling viewers into the intimacy of that subject matter, depicting a breakup between aging poet Elle (Tomlin) and her much younger girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer). But as much as “Grandma” opts make its gay elements a nonissue, this admirable vehicle for Tomlin, 75, isn’t exactly a must-see.
What kicks off the plot isn’t the break-up, but breaking news from Elle’s granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), a pregnant teen who turns to Elle as a last resort to get an abortion. Though Elle is voluntarily broke (she paid off her debts, paid off her home, and cut up her credit cards), she agrees to help Sage deal with her predicament, commencing a trek through California to ask old friends for money.
It’s a classic structure: Two characters bond while encountering multiple eccentrics, giving the film the opportunity to rope in a handful of guest stars. In “Grandma,” this formula proves hit or miss. As one of Elle’s experimental exes, Sam Elliot is effortlessly heartbreaking — a handsome old hermit who can’t hide his lingering scars. Laverne Cox, on the other hand, comes off like a bit of stunt-casting — a miscast, missed opportunity to give the film a snap of diversity.
But what’s most fascinating — and, ultimately, most damning — about “Grandma” is its curious brand of feminism. The movie unquestionably promotes that a woman should have full control of her own body; however, it unwittingly treats issues of pregnancy and maternity as some sort of generational disease. Elle had an abortion herself before conceiving Sage’s mother, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), during a one-night stand. Judy, in turn, had Sage via a sperm donor, militantly keeping men out of the picture altogether. The ostensible effort to give these women agency instead registers as a lineage of melodramatic suffering, resulting a rather self-defeating moral to the story.
Tomlin is a treasure — if only her movie were, too.
Two reels out of four
Coming soon to the Ritz Five
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Roles of masculinity are keenly tested in this underrated and underseen gem, which plumbs the nuances of male relationships like few that have come before it. Jack Black plays an undying people-pleaser who’s still chasing the coolness he couldn’t find in high school, while James Marsden plays the pansexual actor actor who may be a ticket to middle-age coolness. It all adds up to a shrewdness that’s too rare for modern comedies.
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