Lily Tomlin moves right to the top of my 2015 best actress list with Grandma, a film that should put her in strong contention for an Oscar nomination nearly 40 years after she got a nom for her first movie role in Nashville.
As Elle Reid, a grandma who will kick your boyfriend in the dick rather than offer up tea and cookies, Tomlin delivers a performance that runs the gamut of emotions on top of being consistently funny. Her every line delivery feels organic and natural, as if the role was created and written with her in mind.
Writer-director Paul Weitz, who worked with Tomlin a couple of years ago on Admission, did, in fact, write the role of Elle for Tomlin. It’s a role that the legendary comedian richly deserves. It’s nothing short of a total blast watching Tomlin let loose in the sort of spotlight role that has evaded her for too many years. Grandma is her best role since playing Ben Stiller’s druggie mom in Flirting with Disaster nearly 20 years ago.
Elle breaks up with Olivia (Judy Greer), her younger girlfriend, and then Sage (Julia Garner), Elle’s granddaughter, shows up at the door with an age-old problem: She’s pregnant, she’s scheduled for an abortion in a few hours, and she’s flat broke. Elle, a well-known writer, would seem a good candidate to have some cash on hand. Unfortunately, she has just used all of her cash to pay off credit card debts, and she cut up those credit cards to make some nice wind chimes for the front porch.
The two jump in Elle’s old 1955 Dodge Royal (a car actually owned by Tomlin) and set out to find some quick cash before Sage’s appointment at the clinic. Their travels include a stop at a café for bad coffee. (There’s a good cameo from John Cho, a.k.a. the new Sulu, also a.k.a Harold from Harold & Kumar.) They eventually wind up at Sage’s boyfriend’s house, where said boyfriend (Nat Wolff) gets a hockey stick to the nuts courtesy of Elle, who thinks her granddaughter can do better.
Elle and Sage meet a lot of people along the way to the clinic, and each encounter gives Tomlin a chance to just blow up the screen. There’s nothing stereotypical about this grandmother, a potentially cantankerous woman with a good heart behind all of her sarcasm and staged coldness.
Coming out of nowhere with what might just be his best career performance is Sam Elliott as Karl, one of Elle’s past lovers. Elle and Sage drop by his house in their quest for monetary assistance, and Karl’s reaction to their visit goes from pleasant to confusion to utter disgust. Elliott only has one scene in the film, but it’s so powerful, he could find himself in Oscar contention for best supporting actor. He’s that good.
Past Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden arrives late in the film as Judy, Elle’s daughter and Sage’s mom, a career-driven woman who has a treadmill set up at her workstation. Harden puts another charge into a movie that is already high-octane, managing to find the humanity in a woman who’s a bit neglectful as a mom, but can perhaps come through in the clutch. Harden, like Tomlin, finds some stinging laughs in Weitz’s script, and it’s her best work in many years.
The late Elizabeth Pena, in one of her last performances, makes a memorable appearance as a former friend of Elle’s who lowballs her on some first edition books she attempts to pawn. The film eventually wraps after a series of character resolutions that are completely satisfying and devoid of schmaltz.
It’ll be a shocker if Tomlin doesn’t attend the Oscars with a shot at gold next year. Elle is the kind of role that wins awards, or at least earns you a seat next to Brangelina for the show. Tomlin, who has received an Emmy nomination for Grace and Frankie, a Netflix series co-starring her 9 to 5 partner-in-crime Jane Fonda, is back in top form with a vengeance.