Grandma is Lily Tomlin's gig, start to finish, and it totally reminds me of why I have always loved her so much. She's not just funny; she's charismatically at her wit's end, an insanity glistening behind her eyes and words. Her whole persona is kind of like an after-burn, a punch-line to a joke that's kind of funny-ha-ha but mostly funny-weird. Lily's real that way, right on the edge of losing it, but somehow finding energy and renewal from that status. Grandma captures her elderly punk spirit vividly, as Lily plays a lesbian/poet/grandma who in the first few minutes of the film breaks up with her younger girlfriend in a very callous manner and then takes to the shower to sob. There's Lily for the first time, it feels like, on-screen performing a version of herself in the way she's performed all those characters over the years, Lucille and Emily and Ernestine and Judith, all of those wonderfully freaky characters she did on TV and most importantly on 70s comedy albums that totally got me through high school. That one below, Modern Scream, especially. I remember listening to it on my record-player at night and just getting blissed out on how Lily lovingly portrayed those people that seemed completely out of sync with the world, but here someone was making a world out of, and for, them. And then of course there's her Broadway show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (written by her now wife Jane Wagner) that's a tour de force of empathy and magic, championing all kinds of human oddities, all of it rolled up into a sort of road movie of the mind. In Grandma, Lily herself gets that kind of treatment, empathy revealing empathy, without a lot of chuffa (totally thanks to writer-director Paul Weitz).
In movie roles in the past, Lily has always seemed a little uptight, at the mercy of someone else's eye, closeted, less than. In movies like Big Business and Nine to Five, she was fantastic of course, but too-get-along, too sweet. And even in Nashville and The Late Show, beautifully idiosyncratic late-70s movies that have great off-beat rhythms all their own, she was still not who she was, even though she was astutely acting her ass off. And I understand of course that acting is often about not being yourself, but somehow those great characters Lily did on comedy albums and TV and on Broadway were so on-point, so damn real, that they seemed closer to who she was, even though they were often her complete opposites. She vested in them a psychic energy, a need that made them sharpen into self portraits, not just rinky-dink puppets in sketches.
Based on a quest to get her granddaughter to the abortion-clinic on time (and with enough money to pay for it), Grandma has an effortless flow to it, unlike a lot of these kinds of indie movies. It's actually people-pleasing, even though the characters aren't really that upstanding, and that's a total relief. Because in it Lily is so authentically "Lily" (or at least the Lily I have in my head from loving her so long) you finally understand what kind of power she has not just as an actress, but as an icon. And of course it's an ironic, pissed-off, hilarious, intelligent version of icon status, but still Lily plays Elle with a sense of mission and grace that burns away all the unnecessary gestures and poses. It's her face, right there, on the big-screen, smoothed out but still completely lived in, and those glass-shard eyes, that bruised sense of still being around, knowing all the shit that's gone down. She has a remarkable long scene in the middle of Grandma with Sam Elliott that will blow you away, and every scene with Julia Garner, who plays her granddaughter, is priceless, and so on so forth with everyone else in the film. But it's those moments when she's thinking, by herself, that I felt the sense that there wasn't any distance between my soul and her soul, which is kind of what great acting is supposed to do.
Toward the end of Grandma, Lily as Elle is in the backseat of a cab at night, and she just gets tickled. She's thinking about something Violet, her partner for 30 years who passed away a year or so back, said, something funny, and that moment packs such a wallop when combined with all that Elle has gone through in the movie, you can almost hear what Violet is saying to her, just by seeing her response to it. All that from Lily's face in the dark in the backseat.
Go see this movie and bask in it...