Grandma is a small movie that marks the return of a huge talent: Lily Tomlin. The comedian hasn't had much of a feature showcase since the 1990s, which means a whole generation lacks significant exposure to her gimlet eyes and sardonic aplomb.
Tomlin is like Bill Murray: She will never not be slyly subversive. So when she plays a grandma, of course it's not going to be a cookie-baking sweetie or even that tired stereotype of the "sassy" grandma. It's going to be a gravel-voiced, misanthropic feminist poet who matter-of-factly accompanies her teenage granddaughter (Julia Garner) on a daylong odyssey to procure cash for an abortion. And Tomlin is going to make that character — who readily acknowledges that she's a "terrible person" — both likable and funny.
At first glance, Elle Reid appears to be an unreconstructed hippie with commitment phobia — the film opens with her dumping her adoring younger girlfriend (Judy Greer). Fully supportive of her granddaughter's decision to terminate the pregnancy, Elle can't put bank behind it because she's paid off her debts, cut up her credit cards and turned them into a work of art.
But, as we follow Elle and young Sage on their quest for cash — which leads them into Elle's past and eventually to Sage's formidable mom (Marcia Gay Harden) — we start seeing more sides of Grandma. What initially seemed like a one-note Grumpy Old Lady showcase turns into a subtler portrait of a woman who's loved, lost and made hard choices. Elle's cynicism may be knee-jerk, but it's earned.
The character feels like an expansion of Tomlin's turn as Tina Fey's radical, romance-hating mom in the otherwise forgettable rom com Admission (2013). That's no surprise, given that Paul Weitz directed both (as well as writing Grandma). In many ways, this film makes good on the slight comic and dramatic potential of the earlier one.
Tomlin gets full mileage out of her curmudgeonly lines, and she and Garner have such great comic chemistry that it's easy to overlook the thinness of Sage's character. Garner and Nat Wolff (who plays the baby daddy) are stellar young actors limited by the script's dim view of their generation, which matches Elle's. When Elle quizzes Sage on The Feminine Mystique, the teen thinks she's talking about an X-Men character — a funny joke, but a too-easy one, barely scratching the surface of the generational divide.
As the third link in the bloodline, Judy, Harden initially seems like even more of a caricature — a coiffured gorgon of a yuppie who terrorizes her secretary from a treadmill desk. But the longer she's on-screen, the more human Judy becomes in her pent-up exasperation with her mother and daughter. (And, after all, she has a point — someone has to earn the bacon.)
There's more potential in these characters and their conflicts than Grandma has time to explore. Despite the neat containment of its plot within a single day, the film often feels less like a feature than the tantalizing pilot for an Amazon or Netflix series. Over the course of a career that started with American Pie, Weitz has made both good comedies tinged with sentiment (About a Boy) and bad ones (Little Fockers). Now, perhaps, the brightest future for his chosen subgenre is on the small screen.
Grandma hits familiar story beats and doesn't offer much to satisfy the eye — but, like Tomlin, it also keeps on offering sly subversions of expectation. Using a sharp-tongued elder to "speak truth to" a vapid younger generation is an ancient comedy trope. Giving that elder a withering awareness of her own limitations, less so. And uniting two generations in a plotline that Hollywood generally doesn't deem appropriate unless it leads to a last-second change of heart — that's just brave.