Review: Grandma (2015)

Director: Chris Weitz

***

This review was originally published on Scannain.com.

Though never too far away from our cinema or TV screens, Lily Tomlin hasn’t taken a lead role in a film since 1988’s Big Business. If the part of Elle Reid in Paul Weitz’s Grandma wasn’t written for Tomlin, it was some kind of serendipity, because her performance is one of just a few elements that keeps Grandma from disappearing from the mind soon after it ends.

Grandma is defined by its title character, Tomlin’s retired academic and poet, who starts the film by breaking up with her current girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer, who sadly never says “Say goodbye to these”, Arrested Development fans). This is but the first in a series of incidents that come, one after another, to make for a very singular day for Elle. No sooner has Olivia left, but Elle’s granddaughter Sage arrives. Sage is played by Julia Garner, delivering a restrained turn in a role that could so easily have turned quite shrill. Inheriting a certain portion of her grandmother’s bluntness, she confesses she’s pregnant and needs help funding a termination. Grandma doesn’t lack for drama, but it lacks a cohesive structure to keep it grounded. Once Sage makes her announcement, she and Elle are off in search of debtors and friends who might help them cobble the funds together. Thus begins a sorely episodic jaunt all over Los Angeles, with visits lined up one after another. The film is divided into chapters, each with their own title card. The film is episodic enough; the title cards just make it official. As the pair hop from encounter to encounter, some of which are more helpful than others, one can’t help but wish there was something a bit more concrete holding it all together. The handheld camerawork only adds to the feeling the whole film could drift away.

They travel in Elle’s late partner Vi’s vintage car, which rattles and splutters along the sunshiny LA byways. The car serves as both a source of laughs (via engine troubles) and a memory. Throughout, Grandma mingles lumps in the throat in with its guffaws. It’s a tricky balancing act, but Weitz succeeds a little too well. Neither drama nor comedy wins outright; they seem to cancel each other out. We laugh at Elle’s rationales for cutting up her credit card, but this is an emergency where it could make a difference. The scramble for money is the epitome of Weitz’s approach; it’s both an opportunity for laughs and a melancholy commentary. Most of the laughs come courtesy of Tomlin’s delivery of the profanity-peppered dialogue. Elle takes no prisoners; she’s seen and experienced enough to know better than to tolerate younger nonsense, as evidenced by an early encounter with Sage’s boyfriend (Nat Wolff). The poor chap never knew what hit him. Tomlin is unapologetically brilliant as this justified sourpuss, and her rapport with Garner is just the right blend of tough n’ tender. We want this granny in our corner.

Even if the events of Grandma don’t quite gel, it is at least peppered with great individual moments. All too brief appearances by the likes of Laverne Cox, Marcia Gay Harden and the late lamented Elizabeth Peña add to the flavour, while a meeting between Elle and her ex Karl (Sam Elliott) is a beautifully-crafted nugget of drama, with pasts teased out and skeletons unearthed. Alas, Elle and Sage have other places to be, meaning that the great moments don’t last. Even if it’s fleet-footed, at least Grandma isn’t preachy, treating its central premise with the respect and practicality it deserves. The cast make it, but Grandma’s easy-going nature is both blessing and curse.

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Review: Short Cuts (1993)

Director: Robert Altman

****

By the time Robert Altman received his fifth Academy Award nomination for directing Short Cuts, he had already established his reputation as a master of ensemble direction. If nothing else, Short Cuts consolidated that reputation, its breadth and scope handled with the sensitivity of a master craftsman at work.

Like previous Altman films, and most notably since in PT Anderson’s Magnolia, Short Cuts deals with the seemingly random intersections between seemingly disparate characters that seem to define life as we know it. When Doreen (Lily Tomlin) left for work one morning, did she expect to knock down a young boy named Casey (Zane Cassidy) with her car? Did she imagine the effect that would have on his parents (Bruce Davison and Andie McDowell)? And how the hell does she tolerate her slobby husband Earl (Tom Waits). These are but two storylines in a multi-tiered script by Altman and Frank Barhydt. Based on the stories of Raymond Carver, each story could make a film of its own (one segment about a group of fishermen who find a corpse in a river was inspired by the same story that inspired Ray Lawrence’s Jindabyne), yet the script makes the most of the limited time it has (three hours isn’t a lot when you’ve got this many stories to cover). Every character gets an arc and a fair share of screentime. Dr. Wyman (Matthew Modine) takes the best of care of Casey in hospital, but his marriage to artist Marian (Julianne Moore) is crumbling, as is that of Marian’s sister Sherri (Madeline Stowe) and her husband, the unpleasant Gene (Tim Robbins). On the side, he’s seeing Betty (Frances McDormand), whose marriage to the impulsive ‘Stormy’ (Peter Gallagher) has rendered her an unstable single mom.

Neither Gene nor Betty is necessarily the most unpleasant character in Short Cuts (though their philandering and boorish ways would put them in most people’s Top 3 at least), and there is an argument to be made against watching tales of some truly repulsive people. Why didn’t Stuart (Fred Ward) and his fishing buddies report the body in the river immediately? Why does Jerry (Chris Penn) tolerate his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) working as a phone sex operator if it repulses him? And why is a baker (Lyle Lovett) so obsessed over a rejected cake? Again, this is just a small cross-section of stories. Altman shows us some very sad and pathetic people, but they’re truthful. Throughout Short Cuts, there is a refreshing honesty, as characters confront their miseries, frustrations and sexual misgivings. If you can’t identify with make-up artist Bill (Robert Downey Jr.) and his girlfriend Honey (Lili Taylor), you might like her parents, Doreen and Earl… aaaand we’re back where we started. Magnolia may have overtaken Altman’s opus as the definitive LA ensemble, and it may end on a terrible deus ex machina, but Short Cuts is still a bitter little slice of sun-ripened honesty, crafted with precision by a great director and with sterling performances throughout.