Thursday, September 24, 2015

Grandma (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

Lily Tomlin Serves Up Slice of Life In “Grandma”
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Lily Tomlin was too good a comedian for us to forget her funny characters -- Ernestine, the snorting telephone operator; Edith Ann, the bratty five-year-old; and the Tasteful Lady. She made us guffaw with her sketches on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” “Carol Burnett,” and “Saturday Night Live.”  Her Broadway monologues won awards. We loved all those laugh-filled movies like “9 to 5,” “Big Business,” and “All of Me.”

So despite her fine dramatic turns in Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” Paul Schrader’s “The Walker,” and Franco Zefferini’s “Tea With Mussolini” … or her serious TV appearances in “Homicide: Life on the Streets,” “Damages,” and that four-year stint on “The West Wing” … we still think of her as a comedienne who acts rather than an actor who could be funny.

It’s a prejudice that many performers who started out in comedy have to struggle to overcome. Think: Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, Bill Murray.

But with Lily Tomlin’s new movie -- “Grandma,” now showing at the Tropic Cinema -- she bridges that gap, doing a very funny job of acting. This is Lily Tomlin’s first starring role in 27 years.

Here, she plays Elle, a lesbian poet who has broken up with her partner (Judy Greer). “You’re a footnote,” Elle sloughs her off. But she’s a tough cookie with a marshmallow center.

When Elle learns that her 18-year-old unmarried granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) is pregnant, and needs a quick $600 for an abortion, she takes the girl under her wing. The two set off on a road trip in Elle’s old 1955 Dodge Royal, calling on friends in search of a loan. This stirs up old memories, as well as puzzles the girl’s dominating no-nonsense mother (Marcia Gay Harden).

They cross paths with Sage’s doofus boyfriend (Nat Woolf), a transgender tattoo artist (Laverne Cox), a tightfisted shop owner (the late Elizabeth Pena), and Elle’s ex-husband (laconic Sam Elliott).

At just 78 minutes, it’s a short movie. But it manages to cram in some big themes: abortion, lesbianism, trannies, family dynamics, and death.

No, this is not a pie-baking Norman Rockwell grandmother we’re dealing with in this story. Elle is a character close to Lily Tomlin’s own sensibilities -- gay, misanthropic, sarcastic, driven. It’s hard to tell she’s acting in this slice-of-life dramedy. But isn’t that the definition of a good performance?

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