Wednesday, 7 October 2015

At the LFF: "Grandma"

Phase One of the Lily Tomlin Renaissance came on TV - or whatever we're calling Netflix - with the sitcom Frankie and Grace. Grandma constitutes Phase Two: a big-screen vehicle constructed entirely around her presence as an incorrigibly salty oldtimer who gets to put the world to rights for an hour and twenty minutes before walking off into the sunset. (See also: Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, Bruce Dern in Nebraska, every Maggie Smith movie this century.) We join Tomlin's reclusive poet Elle Reid just as she's dumping her latest fling (Judy Greer); she doesn't have to wait long for company, however. Enter Sage (Julia Garner), Elle's granddaughter, who's shown up at her compound in the L.A. hills looking for somebody to accompany her to - and pay for - the abortion she's due to have later that day. Reluctantly, Elle agrees; she dusts off her long-time partner's mothballed Dodge, and away the pair go.

For most of their way across town, we're basically watching a misanthrope clearing some space for her fragile young charge to run into the endzone. Tomlin gets to harangue a coffee-shop owner (John Cho) for overcharging; to kick Sage's no-good babydaddy (Nat Wolff) squarely in the nuts; and to coax the girl's uptight businesswoman mother (Marcia Gay Harden) down off her treadmill-desk long enough to have a conversation that's long been overdue. You sense the film itself attempting to clear a path for further discussion of the A-word, a subject American movies have always slightly tensed up around, if not entirely recoiled from. The writer-director, the likable Paul Weitz, has clearly schooled himself in women's studies and bodies since his American Pie days (though you could argue even those films were markedly more progressive around the fairer sex than the majority of teen movies): Grandma duly namechecks Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir during one stop-off at a feminist bookstore, and generally strives to make abortion no more fearsome than the punchline to a funny story - a procedure that, like the humdrum tonsillectomy, has now been around long enough for us to make a joke out of it, should we so choose.

This is, however, as bold as Grandma gets. There was a time, around the consecutive release of 2002's About a Boy and 2004's In Good Company, when Weitz seemed the obvious inheritor of the "new Wilder" tag jettisoned by Cameron Crowe on his long-haul flight out to gagaland. (The latter's latest Aloha - with Emma Stone cast as an Asian-American - is now available exclusively on DVD.) Both men, I suspect, are too genial for that tag to really stick: their tendency is to give us the cookie, but not the arsenic, too busy joshing to much probe the darker side of their characters. (As a result, it wouldn't surprise me if, at some point over the coming months, Weitz were accused of coasting by on the coattails of the abortion conversation initiated by Gillian Robespierre in last year's far spikier indie Obvious Child.)

Still, Grandma has its moments: chiefly a terrific stretch involving Sam Elliott as Tomlin's ex-husband - hardly an overbearing patriarch, just a dude in cowboy boots tinkering with a small, battery-powered jeep. (We learn he's had eleven grandkids, all told; he has nothing to compensate for.) Here, at least, the ever-inclusive Weitz digs a little deeper into his material, extending the field of inquiry to explore how the ways women relate to and use their bodies affects not just themselves, and one another - but men, too; it also offers the sight of two cherishably lived-in performers putting down the corn for a second and properly chewing over what Elliott describes as "the old shit [that] bubbles up through the tar". A bonus for young multiplex audiences: the chance to learn some new insults. Upon hearing Elle berated as a "writer-in-residence", Sage shrugs "My friends just call each other bitch, ho and slut." It's an easy path to follow, but everyone's heading in more or less the right direction.

Grandma screens tomorrow at 2.15pm at the Odeon Leicester Square, then on Fri 9 at 6.30pm at the Cineworld Haymarket, and finally on Sat 10 at 1.30pm at the Ritzy. 

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