We don’t get to choose when or where we fall in love with a performer; sometimes it happens when they’re doing Ingmar Bergman, and sometimes it’s “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” Lily Tomlin joined the cast of that cherished relic of a sketch comedy TV show in 1970 and very quickly millions became her comedy slaves, thanks to Ernestine, her purse-lipped telephone operator, and to Edith Ann, the fidgety wonder of a 5-year-old in the oversize rocking chair.
In short order Tomlin, now 75, shone in more dramatic roles on the big screen, particularly in Robert Altman’s “Nashville” and Robert Benton’s “The Late Show.” Lately, in a pretty good variety of series television, she has brought a sort of natural, eccentric charisma to all sorts of roles. She’s having a robust third act. So few actresses get the chance.
Tomlin’s comic and dramatic resources are mined for all they’re worth in writer-director Paul Weitz’s “Grandma.” It’s very slight and very short (barely 75 minutes minus the end credits), but the material is just effective and affecting enough to make up for its own schematic quality. It’s a matter of watching a series of actors, led by Tomlin, tag off on their respective scenes.
Weitz divides his story of an enormously prickly Los Angeles poet named Elle Reid into vignettes with titles such as “Ink” and “Ogre.” Elle’s lover of 38 years has been dead for a year or so, and her latest girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer, honest and sharp), has borne the brunt of Elle’s residual hostility and grief. The movie begins with their breakup, followed by a visit paid to Elle by granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner). The high school senior needs $630 for an abortion, and she’s too scared to ask her own fearsome mother (Marcia Gay Harden). Weitz’s film unfolds in a single, eventful day, as Elle and Sage search out what’s left of Elle’s circle of friends.
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Weitz strips everything down for efficiency in “Grandma.” The writing is relentlessly on point, and often lacks breathing room, but some films settle for being workable showcases for their interpreters. When Sam Elliott’s Karl shows up as an old flame of Elle’s, the stage is set for scenes we may well see highlighted early next year on Oscar night, if Tomlin and Elliott get the nominations they deserve. In just a few minutes, Weitz’s script affords Elliott an unusually wide emotional range, as old resentments and wounds are exposed, and Tomlin’s character acknowledges the damage she did decades ago simply by not being honest — with him or with herself. It’s the film’s highlight.
The audience-baiting material falls to Tomlin’s character, as she goes from confronting Sage’s loser sometime boyfriend (Nat Wolff, in a bluntly written joke of a role) to making uneasy amends with her own daughter. The least predictable laugh in “Grandma” takes place outside the family planning clinic, just after Elle lectures a very young anti-abortion protester. The truest revelation of character comes earlier, in a private moment, after Elle has just ejected Olivia from her insular life. Elle’s in the bathroom, looking at herself in the mirror, and she lets loose with a growl of regret, anger and teary laughter, all in one nonverbal flourish. It may well have been scripted, but Tomlin makes it her own. The movie would be far less without such moments.
**** out of 5
Cast: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Sam Elliott, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer.
Director: Paul Weitz.
Running time: 1:18.
Rated: R, for language and some drug use.