Don’t let that comforting title fool you. “Grandma” is no sugary-sweet smoothie for viewers of a certain AARP age. It would hit that target audience like a hurled brick. Instead, it hands Lily Tomlin the first leading role she has played since the ’80s, reveling in every drop of the sharp-tongued sarcasm this consummate comedic actor conveys like no one else.
Bland it is not. The word “Grandma” has barely faded from the opening visual when Tomlin’s irascible Elle Reid shows she’s no fountain of senior citizen wisdom and warm hugs. A retired Los Angeles college professor who embodies the activist feminism of the ’60s, she likes her privacy, even when she gets a surprise visit from her 18-year-old granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner).
Sage and her dope-head boyfriend have been bumbling in the sack. The high school girl’s pregnancy test has revealed she’s with child. She knows that her mom, Elle’s all-controlling Type A daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), a product of the career-woman mindset of the ’80s, won’t give Sage the $600 she needs that very afternoon to end her condition. When Elle learns of Sage’s situation, does she soothe her with cuddles? No, she growls condescendingly that it’s “nothing to dance a jig about.”
On the other hand, it’s not the sort of thing a self-confident specialist in feminist poetry sees as the end of the world. If Elle’s daughter won’t help her own kid, she will. Sure, she doesn’t have a dollar to spare out of her miniature pension, but where there’s a will, there are five or 10 ways. Maybe the women’s bookstore nearby would give her a premium price for her first edition of Betty Freidan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” which is, she must inform Sage, a pioneering feminist bestseller, not a character from Marvel’s “X-Men.”
Climbing into a rattletrap Dodge she inherited from her late lesbian partner, combative Elle takes her offspring’s offspring on a day-long pilgrimage around Los Angeles. Their trip is part adventure, part women’s history lesson and part treasure hunt, each segment stuffed with sharp character insights and barbed humor. In a trim 82 minutes, writer-director Paul Weitz (“About A Boy”) has created an edgy, sophisticated comedy that fits his star like a designer gown.
And he has brought in a marvelous supporting cast. There are superb contributions by Judy Geer (as an ex-girlfriend glum because Elle dropped her after just four months), Sam Elliot (as Elle’s only male lover, still regretting their identical split-up after she misled him decades ago to give her the gestation she wanted) and Nat Wolff (as Sage’s baby daddy, who Elle lambastes with a hockey stick). In each new turn of the plot, Elle reveals herself as an equal opportunity misanthrope, as ready to attack women or men, strangers or relations.
And yet it’s hard to direct the character’s sneers back at her. Tomlin’s wisecracking firebrand has an admirable streak of self-criticism. Elle begins every argument with a faint smile that says “this is going to be fun.” She sums up her own bridge-burning history by declaring, “Yeah, well, I’m a horrible person” in the same tough as nails tone as she uses against everyone else.
An awful person played by a terrific actress with pure pizazz, in a film worthy of her gifts.
“GRANDMA,” starring Lily Tomlin, Marcia Gay Harden and Julia Garner. Written and directed by Paul Weitz. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Rated R for language and some drug use. Running time: 1:19