Film Review: Grandma – Tomlin’s unlikable professor/poet misanthrope sink this predictable tale of a teenage abortion crisis
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
With her first starring film vehicle in years, comedian Lily Tomlin somehow has garnered rave reviews for her performance in ‘Grandma,’ a film about an ageing lesbian, retired professor/poet who takes on the mantle of aiding her beleaguered teenage granddaughter, faced with a crisis of undergoing an abortion.
Tomlin’s sketch performances on Rowan and Martin’s “Laugh-In” beginning in 1969 made her an iconic figure in the comedy field that’s lasted into the new century. In effect, Tomlin has become a somewhat of a “sacred cow” with the public and as the dictionary tells us, performers that have been afforded such a special status must be considered exempt from criticism or questioning.
Those of us who have a modicum of critical standards must not be cowed by a weak-willed film-going public, eager to embrace smug enterprises such as ‘Grandma,’ and grant accolade after accolade to Tomlin, whose performance here is certainly nothing special.
Tomlin’s partner in crime in concocting the Grandma narrative is Paul Weitz, who wrote the screenplay and also directed. Weitz, known for the unfunny political satire, ‘American Dreamz,’ attempts to collect some laughs casting Tomlin as Ellie Reid, a potty-mouthed curmudgeon who enjoys assaulting a teenager and provoking a pre-teen to deliver a knuckle sandwich straight to her face. You might imagine that the main character’s background as an academic might provide ample opportunity for some engaging intellectual debate as well as additional seasoning replete with a coterie of saucy literary allusions. Unfortunately Weitz opts for a thoroughly contrived tale that manages to avoid focusing on anything that approaches the “intellect,” while instead, unsatisfactorily honing in on unappealing sentiment instead.
Grandma is contrived because it asks us to accept the absurd premise that Ellie would have paid off all her debts and cut up all her credit cards without leaving a small fund for emergency situations which any normal person would do—such as the one she finds herself in when granddaughter Sage makes her grand appearance. But of course ‘quirky’ Ellie can get away with it because she is a kooky curmudgeon and somehow this form of character are embraced as lovable by an uncritical public. But what’s so amusing about Ellie, whose main character trait is one of obnoxiousness? What exactly is funny about slugging a teenager (Sage’s loser boyfriend) in the crotch with a hockey stick? She’s allowed to do this because Weitz sinks to the lowest of lows in creating such a misanthropic character. Do such characters as the boyfriend exist in real life? Of course not! But in Weitz’s simplistic world, the men are the bad guys. The women, on the other hand, are the flawed but lovable victims of male perfidy.
The anti-male narrative reaches it apotheosis in Ellie’s meeting with her ex-husband, Karl, who she supposedly hasn’t seen in years. Ellie asks Karl for $500 to mostly pay for Sage’s abortion. He has two conditions: first he wants a kiss from her; but then he asks her for sex. The wretched Karl finally “slams” the door on both Ellie and Sage when he learns that Sage needs an abortion. How’s that for a monster of an ex-husband?
More misanthropy is in store when Ellie and Sage are finally forced to get the bulk of the cash for the abortion from Sage’s workaholic, overly bitchy attorney mother, Judy, who shows no sympathy for Sage’s poor decisions regarding men. Rex Reed is quite correct writing in the The Observer, that “everyone in the movie is so hateful there’s nobody to root for.” But don’t despair dear reader-—Mr. Weitz will ensure that all the main characters foibles will not get the best of them. Sure enough Judy shows her kind streak to Sage at the critical moment she needs some tender loving care (i.e. the aftermath of the abortion procedure.)
And of course the chief misanthrope of the drama, Ellie, has only been mean to her much younger lover, Olivia, because she’s been pining away over the recent death of her long-term partner, Vi. Quite predictably, Ellie realises that the excessive mourning is counterproductive and offers an olive branch to Olivia in the form of first editions from her broad library of feminist literature.
To top it off Weitz throws in some additional straw men to highlight the earnestness of our feminist heroes: a barista (male of course) who won’t countenance talk of abortion in his coffee shop as well as two creepy anti-abortion protesters (one of whom is that pre-teen who slugs Ellie in the face).
Grandma confirms Lily Tomlin’s status as a sacred cow. If Ms. Tomlin is to be judged solely on her decision to get involved in Weitz’s project, then one must conclude that she is a mediocrity indeed. Hopefully pundits who are familiar with Ms. Tomlin’s work in both film and television over the years, can make a better case for her in spite of such a weak project such as this.