Elle Reid is the type of person who is her own worst enemy, is smart enough to realize she’s her own worst enemy — and is going to continue being her own worst enemy until her last breath.
And if you don’t like it, there’s the door.
Lily Tomlin is almost certain to win a best actress nomination for her title role in “Grandma,” a slim (80 minutes) little one-day road movie from Paul Weitz filled with big laugh lines but saturated with regret, grief and separation.
It’s the saddest comedy of the year.
Elle is a poet and academic who was on the front lines of the feminist movement back in the day. (She still had first-edition copies of books such as Betty Friedan’s “The Feminist Mystique,” and she’s horrified when her granddaughter tells her the only Mystique she knows is an “X-Men” character.)
If Elle ever had a social filter, it’s long since eroded. Ending a fling with the much younger and much sweeter Olivia (Judy Greer), Elle cruelly says, “You were a footnote” and casually tells Olivia to leave her keys on the table.
A moment later, however, we see another side to Elle, and we’re oh so ready to learn the rest of her story.
Enter Elle’s granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner in an understated and authentic performance), a winsome teenager who shows up on Elle’s porch asking for exactly $630, which she needs to pay for the abortion she has scheduled for 5:45 p.m., i.e., about nine hours from this moment.
Elle doesn’t have the money. She cleaned out her savings paying off her debts, including a $27,000 health care bill for Elle’s partner of 38 years, Violet, who died a year and a half ago. She doesn’t even have any credit cards, having cut them into pieces and turned them into a mobile.
OK. So Elle could probably call one of the credit card companies and they’d most likely issue a new one and help her with a cash advance — but then we don’t have a movie. What happens here is Elle takes the cover off Violet’s 1955 Dodge Royal, and Elle and Sage embark on a mini-odyssey in and around Los Angeles, trying to accumulate the necessary funds.
There’s a tattoo artist who owes Elle $400; there’s the owner of a café who had expressed an interest in buying some of Elle’s first edition books; there’s Sage’s boyfriend, who had promised to help with the money but didn’t come through.
And then there’s Sam Elliott’s Karl, a wealthy, seemingly chill dude who has a serious history with Elle, before she came out as a lesbian. We think we know exactly where this scene is going — and then it takes a hard turn into some heavy territory, and it’s a real treat to see Elliott step out of his comfort zone do some of the best acting of his life.
We’re deep into the movie before we meet Elle’s daughter and Sage’s mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), a successful lawyer who easily could come up with the cash — but that would mean Elle and Sage would have to tell Judy that Sage is pregnant, and they’re terrified by that notion. This is a family with a LOT of baggage.
At times “Grandma” overdoes it with the stand-alone scenes in which crusty ol’ Elle causes a scene or sticks it to some jerk. It’s a little too neat.
Mostly, though, Weitz’s screenplay strikes sharp note after sharp note. This is Tomlin’s first leading role in a film in 27 years, and even though she is sharing the screen with multiple generations of fine actors, nearly every moment in this movie is all hers. They might as well have handed Tomlin her nomination on the last day of filming.