American Pie director Paul Weitz’s Grandma opens with a quote from American poet Eileen Myles: “Time passes. That’s for sure.” Without the attribution it would sound like exactly what it is: a banal, commonplace statement of the numbingly obvious; it’s Myles’ stature as an icon of feminist literature that gives it a false aura of profundity. The quote fits Grandma better than Weitz probably realizes; with anybody but Lily Tomlin in the title role it would look like the shallow, trivial little thing it is.
But it does have Tomlin, and is therefore more or less worth watching, more or less in spite of itself. Plus it’s only 79 minutes long, so it doesn’t become the same kind of patience-trying trudge as other vehicles for over-the-hill stars, like A Walk in the Woods or Last Vegas.
Tomlin plays Elle Reid, an elderly poet and former academic, and Weitz introduces us to her in the middle of a breakup with Olivia (Judy Greer), her lover of four months, who looks almost young enough to be her granddaughter. But Elle has a real granddaughter, and before long we meet her: the teenage Sage (Julia Garner), who is pregnant and needs $630 to pay for an abortion. The movie then follows the two of them as Elle drives Sage around town trying to get the cash together.
Weitz ushers us proudly through every stage of this Via Dolorosa, breaking things up into little chapters with terse lower-case titles—“endings,” “ink,” “apes,” “the ogre,” etc.—in a pretentiously literary touch meant to evoke poetic simplicity. We follow the two women through a confrontation with a coffeehouse barista (John Cho), an unpleasant scene with Sage’s scumball ex-boyfriend (Nat Wolff) and attempts to get the money from a transgender tattoo artist (Laverne Cox); Carla (the late Elizabeth Peña), the proprietor of a feminist cafe; Karl (Sam Elliott), an old flame of Elle’s from the long-ago days before she accepted her true sexuality—and finally, reluctantly, the high-powered businesswoman Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), Sage’s mother and Elle’s quasi-estranged daughter.
Every scene of Grandma plays like a guest spot on an old TV variety show, or those celebrity blackouts on Tomlin’s own Laugh-In from the 1960s. (“In this scene, Lily’s special guest—Judy Greer!”)
False notes pop up at every turn of the wheels of Elle’s wheezy old 1955 Dodge. Elle and Judy supposedly haven’t been speaking, yet Judy knows about Elle’s girlfriend of four months. Karl and Elle supposedly haven’t seen each other in 30 years, yet she knows where he lives, even though his house doesn’t look that old. Elle gets punched in the eye by the 10-year-old daughter of a protester at an abortion clinic. That last scene, so supremely silly, is where the essential falseness of Grandma becomes unavoidable and undeniable. It’s like the equally stupid scene of Jason Biggs having sex with an oven-warm pastry in Weitz’s American Pie. You can take the writer-director out of American Pie, but you can’t take American Pie out of the writer-director.
Weitz hits a litany of hot-button issues: elderly lesbian heroine who suffered through a back-alley abortion 50 years ago, who has a transgender gal pal and a pregnant granddaughter seeking a safe, legal abortion. All that’s missing is to have Elle and Sage lobbying Congress in favor of Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.