Lily Tomlin is both poignant and hilarious as Elle, the acerbic title character in “Grandma.” This enjoyable lark, written and directed by Paul Weitz, gives the veteran comedienne a juicy role, one she was born to play. Tomlin tears into it with the gusto of a pit bull with a chew toy.
The film opens with an ending: Elle, a poet and “unemployed academic,” is breaking up with her much younger girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer). Elle’s deadpan comment about the relationship’s failure — “I need to vacuum” — is both funny and telling, completely brushing aside Olivia’s feelings while masking the deeper pain Elle feels but is perhaps too proud to express.
The story begins in earnest when Elle’s granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), turns up on her doorstep hoping to get $630 for an abortion. Sage does not want to tell her bossy mother, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), about her pregnancy and hopes her grandma can help her resolve her problem quickly and discretely. Elle is sympathetic, but doesn’t have the money, having cut up her credit cards after paying off $27,000 in a late lover’s hospital bills. So, Elle and Sage embark on a day-long road trip to visit several women as well as a man Elle has known over the years who might be able to help out with a loan.
“Grandma” is a slight, contrived story, but it yields many pleasures, most notably when Tomlin is dispensing bracingly funny one-liners, from throwaway jokes about “rapidly approaching 50” to quips about how assholes make her angry.
For Tomlin, the film is more than just a fantastic showcase. It also gives her a chance to play a lesbian character who was part of the feminist movement decades before and now lives in a world where her own granddaughter does not know who Betty Friedan is. Weitz’s smart, quick-witted script mines much of its humor from Elle’s droll responses to the younger generation. Tomlin plays the irascible character as someone who struggled all her life and has little patience for anyone who is not as tough as she is. Case in point: her encounter with Cam (Nat Wolff), the teen who impregnated Sage. He is not particularly responsible when it comes to accepting his role in Sage’s situation, and Elle’s handling of him is a comic highlight.
When Elle and Sage get into an old Dodge that has trouble starting, it is as much a metaphor for the difficulties confronting the women as it is a foreshadowing of car trouble later. The script is never subtle, but neither is Elle, who beats up one character and takes a punch from another. The film’s players tackle the physical comedy with relish, and the script’s verbal dexterity is an asset as well. Sage calls Elle a “philanthrope” when she means misanthrope, but the two also discuss the word slut in a way that allows them to share intergenerational female-centric bonding.
The film offers some terrific supporting moments, as when Elle visits with her old friend Deathy (Laverne Cox), a tattoo parlor artist, in the hopes of collecting some cash. Their reminiscing about old times is lovely if all too brief. Cox has such a warm presence viewers will want more of her, but at a brisk 79 minutes, “Grandma” needs to keep moving.
Another key episode involves Elle paying a call on Karl (Sam Elliott), a man she once live with and loved but now dubs “the ogre.” Their conversation, about how their lives have changed over the past 30 years and what they continue to owe each another is especially touching. Weitz plays this scene for humor as well, with the pair sharing a joint as a way of remembering their past and dealing with the present. The encounter provides Elle with some soul-searching moments that Sage can relate to in ways that beautifully point up parallels in their lives.
Sage’s predicament may drive the story, but she is in most respects the straight (wo)man for Elle, who bulldozes her way into every scene. A visit to a cafe where her friend Carla (the late Elizabeth Peña) works has Elle lashing out in less than admirable fashion, leaving a stunned granddaughter in her wake.
“Grandma” is episodic, but remains consistently fun because of Tomlin’s success in presenting Elle’s hard demeanor in a refreshing way. It’s when Judy enters the picture — Marcia Gay Harden plays the protective momma bear role to the shrewish hilt — that we perhaps best understand how Elle came by her tough exterior. Yet we also witness a mother/ daughter bond that is real. Even in the film’s final moments, when the story threatens to turn warm and fuzzy, it never cops out.
Like “Juno” and “Obvious Child,” “Grandma” manages to bring believable levity to the delicate question of abortion. The film succeeds largely thanks to Tomlin’s crackerjack timing and to its wise take on feminism and sisterhood.
GRANDMA | Directed by Paul Weitz | Sony Pictures Classics | Opens Aug. 21 | Angelika Film Center, 18 W. Houston St. at Mercer St. | anglikafil