Any longer would be a pain. Who would want to put up with such a hilariously cantankerous, opinionated, bitter and twisted old lady for any longer than that?
Which is exactly the amount of time the 80-minute movie spends with Elle Reid. A day.
A day in which the once celebrated but now mostly ignored poet breaks up with a girlfriend many years her junior, sees her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) turn up at her Los Feliz house needing $600 for an abortion and, broke herself, spends the rest of the time with Sage looking up old friends and flames in search of money.
Writer-director Weitz, of course, uses these close encounters to illuminate much about the previous 25,000 or so days in the life of Elle Reid. It’s not deep dish, however. The insights are glancing so you never quite get a handle on her acerbic nature.
Nevertheless, Weitz has created a perfect role for Tomlin, a woman who matches her innate wisdom, charisma and wit. And Tomlin goes at it full-bore, never yielding to any temptation to soften the old lady around the edges or sentimentalizing her eccentricities.
Often thought of as a comic actor on TV (everything from”Laugh-In” and her specials to the recent amiable “Grace and Frankie”) and stage (her Broadway successes with “Appearing Nitely” and “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Live in the Universe”), some may forget Tomlin’s lengthy career as a film actress of the highest caliber.
After making her debut as a gospel singer with two deaf children in Altman’s masterpiece “Nashville,” she delivered performances of great depth in such films as “The Late Show,” “Shadows and Fog,” “Short Cuts,” “Flirting With Disaster,” “Tea With Mussolini,” “A Prairie Home Companion” and “The Walker.”
She knows how to sell a laugh but she also knows how to dig into her characters to extract truths about their humanity. She understands how the surfaces of people, their quirks and obsessions, are manifestations of inner turmoil. She plays the quirks so you understand the turmoil.
Elle is in constant pain from the loss a while back of her longtime partner Violet to cancer. In a rage to clear the deck, Elle has recently paid off every debt she owes including those medical bills.Then in a foolish declaration of independence, she cut up her credit cards.
Thus, her insolvency at a moment of financial need for her granddaughter.
The quest for money brings the two generations into contact with Sage’s supremely unconcerned boyfriend (Nat Wolff) — watch Grandma get the best of him! — an unintended encounter with her newly minted ex, Olivia (the ever talented Judy Greer); a transgender tattoo artist pal (Laverne Cox); a former husband (Sam Elliott); and last but most certainly the most formidable of the encounters, her daughter and Sage’s mom, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden).
“I’ve been afraid of her since she was five,” Elle admits.
While you come to see Tomlin, you will marvel at how Weitz surrounds his star with finely tuned performances by all the other actors in smaller roles including the late Elizabeth Peña as a brittle cafe owner and John Cho as an anxious barista.
Weitz’s grand scheme comes into focus in the third act when all three generations of women haltingly find a way to resolve their differences. His story is about emotional scars passed down; how mothers and daughters unknowingly do damage to one another in ways they never understood at the time.
It sounds heavy but this gets delivered with the lightest of touches by Tomlin, Garner and Harden. Garner, her jaw often dropping at her grandma’s obscenity-laced verbal darts, plays her role beautifully, struggling to overcome her own terrors about her choice of action even as she marches firmly on.
Harden, as a high-powered downtown L.A. attorney, is a Miss Bossy Pants but you understand where that came from. She had two mothers growing up, her own and the now departed Vi, and she makes it clear which one she appreciated more.
And yet Judy’s own daughter has as little rapport with her as she does with her mother. Strange how things skip a generation.
“Grandma” ultimately is a highly satisfying comedy that deals with serious issues from abortion to the forces that can scar women. The great Lily Tomlin and her supporting cast turn its situations and characters into solid humor at every turn.
Comedies this good are a rare thing, unfortunately.
Opens: August 21, 2015 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production companies: 1821 Media presents a Depth of Field production
Cast: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Laverne Cox, Nat Wolff, John Cho, Sam Elliott, Elizabeth Peña, Sarah Burns, Colleen Camp, Lauren Tom, Judy Geeson, Frank Collison, Mo Aboul-Zelof
Director-screenwriter: Paul Weitz
Producers: Andrew Miano, Paul Weitz, Paris Kasidokostas-Latsis, Terry Dougas
Executive producers: Stephanie Meurer, Dan Balgoyen, Danielle Renfrew Behrens
Director of photography: Tobias Datum
Production designers: Cindy Chao, Michele Yu
Costume designer: Molly Grundman-Gerbosi
Music: Joel P. West
Editor: Jonathan Corn
R rating, 80 minutes