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by Peter Sobczynski

"Lily In The Valley"
4 stars

Lily Tomlin is, of course, one of the great comedians of our time, regardless of gender, but she has never quite been able to fully transpose her unparalleled talents from the stage to the screen. Oh sure, she has had great success as a supporting player in films like "I Heart Huckabees" and her collaborations with Robert Altman--including her Oscar-nominated turn in the classic "Nashville"--and she did wonderful work opposite Art Carney in "The Late Show" and Steve Martin in "All of Me," but for the most part, Hollywood just has had no idea of what to do with someone with her undeniably quirky appeal and the few times when she was afforded an unabashed lead role, as was the case with "Moment by Moment" and "The Incredible Shrinking Woman," the results were pretty dire. With her new film, "Grandma," she has finally been given a screenplay that knows how to make use of her gifts and while the film as a whole may have some rough patches here and there, Tomlin more than makes up for it with a spectacular lead performance that is one of the funniest and most surprisingly heartfelt things that she has every done.

She plays Elle Reid, a misanthropic poetess in her seventies who hasn't done much of anything since the death of longtime partner Violet except sharpen her tongue and sense of bitterness towards virtually everything in the world. As the story opens, we see her curtly breaking up with her much younger girlfriend (Judy Greer) by dismissing her as nothing more than "a footnote." One of the few people in the world that Elle isn't completely hostile to is her granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), who turns up on her doorstep with her own set of problems--she is pregnant and needs Elle's help in getting an abortion. She has an appointment that afternoon--the last available slot for a while--but it costs $600, she is flat broke and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), Elle's estranged daughter, recently confiscated her credit card. Unfortunately for her, Elle is broke as well--she just finished paying off all her credit card debt at once and celebrated by chopping up all of her cards.

Nevertheless, she is determined to help Sage but after they discover that the free women's clinic that Violet used to volunteer at has been shuttered and replaced with a coffee shop, Elle and Sage set off on a race to scrounge up the money and get to the clinic on time. They visit Sage's jerk boyfriend (Nat Wolff) whose disinterest in the situation quickly turns when Elle gives him a hockey stick to the groin. Then Elle tries to pawn off her first editions of the classic works of feminist literature to the owner of a hipster cafe (Elizabeth Pena) but that stop goes bad when the books prove to be nearly worthless and then gets worse when Elle's ex shows up. In a move of desperation, Elle visits Karl (Sam Elliott), a well-off man from her past who could easily help. Throughout these stops, not to mention the inevitable confrontation with her daughter, Elle finds herself confronting both her own tumultuous past and uncertain future even as she does everything in her power--including taking a punch in the face from a most unexpected source--to ensure that Sage doesn't have her own life derailed.

To be honest, the early scenes of "Grandma" are not exactly promising. The breakup scene between Elle and her still-adoring girlfriend just feels a little bit off, the gyrations that writer-director Paul Weitz (who worked with Tomlin in her hilarious supporting turn in the otherwise iffy "Admission") goes through in the screenplay to explain why Elle and Sage have to hit the road in search of the $600 are too labored and the scenes in which Elle raises hell in the coffee shop and with Sage's boyfriend are funny enough but kind of broad. However, once the premise has been established and Elle and Sage hit the road, it finally gets under control and becomes a hilarious and touching meeting of the minds between women representing two very different variants of contemporary womanhood--Elle being from the generation who was on the front lines battling for women's rights, including the right to get an abortion, and Sage representing those who frankly take the rights that her grandmother's generation fought over for granted (the scene in which she shows no familiarity with the great feminist authors is both hilarious and cringe-worthy)--who both find themselves contemplating the choices they have made and have to make in their respective lives and the consequences of those choices.

This is best exemplified in one extended sequence that is not only the highlight of the film but arguably the finest single scene of any film from this year. It is the reunion between Elle and Karl, two old friends who came to an impasse when Elle made a choice that changed their lives forever. At first, things are light and fun as Karl recounts his numerous exes, children and grandchildren while Elle lights up a joint and slowly butters him up in order to get him to loan the money. Eventually, the truth of what happened to split them apart all those years ago finally comes to a head with the kind of devastating impact that few films manage to generate in the their entire running time, let alone the ten minutes or so that this scene lasts. Both Tomlin and Sam Elliott are scene-stealers of the highest order but here, they play beautifully off of each other and create a fully convincing relationship in only a few minutes. The scene is so good, in fact, that it could be spun off and expanded into its own film and I for one would be eager to see it.

Besides that sequence, the other great thing about "Grandma" is the performance by Lily Tomlin as Elle. Even though she didn't write the film, the character has a definite kinship with the indelible characters that Tomlin brought to life in her landmark stage shows. She is hilarious throughout but she is just as strong and convincing during the more dramatic parts as well and she and Julia Garner (also quite good) strike up a nice rapport that helps get the film past the rough early patches to its surprisingly powerful conclusion. She is wonderful here and deserves all of the praise that she has been receiving for it since the film debuted at Sundance earlier this year. Smart, funny and thought-provoking in equal measure (although the film is unambiguously pro-choice in nature, it takes pains to suggest the emotional toll that abortion can leave behind as well), Inevitably, there will no doubt be some viewers that will be thrown into a tizzy by the film's basic premise. That would be their loss because "Grandma" is a pretty good movie with a pretty great performance and a near-perfect extended sequence smack in the middle of it for good measure.

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originally posted: 08/28/15 11:51:44
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2015 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2015 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.

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  21-Aug-2015 (R)
  DVD: 09-Feb-2016

  11-Dec-2015 (15)

  DVD: 09-Feb-2016

Directed by
  Paul Weitz

Written by
  Paul Weitz

  Lily Tomlin
  Julia Garner
  Marcia Gay Harden
  Judy Greer
  Laverne Cox
  Sam Elliott

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