April 25, 2019

This Week’s Popcorn: “Grandma”


What Strong Resolve you Have

4 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

Special to the Observer


There are few things in movies quite as satisfying as an irascible protagonist giving someone a piece of his mind. We squealed with delight when Jack Nicholson told a pigheaded waitress in “Five Easy Pieces” (1970) what to do with some sandwich makings. Every so often a charismatic curmudgeon must help right the world, set the human race straight, so to speak, by telling it like it is, and letting loose the feelings political correctness precludes us from blurting out at the top of our lungs. Lily Tomlin provides this vicarious thrill and much more in “Grandma.”


Auteur Paul Weitz’s brassy vehicle for Miss Tomlin’s feature length diatribe against what Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958) politely called mendacity takes place over the course of one day, efficiently packaged in 79 minutes of thought-provoking, mental rummaging. The framework is simple and mildly clichéd, which works to keep the philosophical messages from being obfuscated. In short, a naïve teenager who thought she knew it all before she found herself unintentionally pregnant, desperately seeks the counsel of her grandmother.


Played by Julia Garner, Sage needs $600 for an abortion and just can’t ask mom for the money. Luckily, she has one heck of an accepting grandma in the personage of Miss Tomlin’s Elle Reid, a college prof, poet and Women’s Lib advocate who folks in the movement might properly mention in the same breath with Betty Friedan. She is the classical, iconic veteran of the 1960s, practicing what she preaches even if it kills her. Of course she’s a bit more complicated than that, and through efforts here her life and motivations are engagingly explored.


Opening an initial window into her character, the iconoclast, temporarily short on cash, can’t offer Sage the use of her credit cards. You see, impetuously deciding to rid herself of such economic beholden, she has cut up her plastic obligators and repurposed them into a wind chime outside the door of her cozy cottage in the L.A. hills. There, they quietly whisper her lifelong quest for self-determination.


Oh, she’s a crazy combination of sanctimonious effrontery, undying love, altruistic purpose and whatever else Tomlin ingeniously scavenges for a tour de force that should win her at least an Oscar nomination if not the statuette itself. Sage kind of gets it, but is nonetheless abashed by certain things about her granny she doesn’t grok. In turn, sensing that this lack of information about the human condition is precisely what has put the poor kid at her doorstep, Grandma figures it must be rectified, and right quick.


Hence, embarking on a mini road trip to find that $600, Elle, making like a postmodern Auntie Mame, turns it into an educative journey rife with skeletons and memories of a past in which she was a pioneer against intolerance. But first, to clear the air with a bit of edifying humor and see what kind of stupidity they’re up against, a visit to Cam (Nat Wolff), Sage’s boyfriend who has been of absolutely no help. Now he even has the chutzpah to question whether the potential baby is his. Grandma uses the indolent lad’s hockey stick to point out a few things.


That settled, off they motor in Elle’s 1955 Dodge Royal Lancer. Bequeathed to the title character by her deceased lover, it is a rolling metaphor of her devotion to said partner’s cherished memory, and too cool a car casting not to mention. Suffice it to note, things don’t go quite as easily as Elle had hoped. Visiting old friends, sweethearts and ones she thought were both, while not immediately encouraging to the cause at hand, lifts up the proverbial rock to further explain this survivor’s makeup.


Now please note, this is a bittersweet confection with a soft, creamy shell and a very hard, inscrutable center. For all the witty banter, cynicism and touching nostalgia, there is a 600 lb. gorilla in “Grandma” sure to keep half its potential audience home. More conflict-ridden than the disparity between haves and have-nots, Democrats vs. Republicans and both sides of the gun control dispute, abortion is arguably America’s most divisive issue since slavery. Nonetheless, Tomlin, a champion of things liberal, never cops out and tackles the matter with brave resolve.


The result is a small but powerful niche film of the sort that might play the avant-garde houses in and around big cities and college campuses, not only because of its implied protest and controversy, but also due to its artistry and economy of style…and without subtitles, yet. Moreover, despite the Fairy Grandmother magic Miss Tomlin so lovingly and cantankerously applies, the movie takes no fanatical pride in its deductions, and simply allows the story’s real life situation to explain “Grandma’s” convictions.

“Grandma,” rated R, is a Sony Pictures Classics release directed by Paul Weitz and stars Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner and Marcia Gay Harden. Running time: 79 minutes



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