Lily Tomlin Shines in the Feisty, Charming ‘Grandma’

“I told her, ‘I wrote something for you,’ and she lost her appetite immediately.” And that, according to writer/director Paul Weitz, is how he introduced Lily Tomlin to Grandma, which made its New York premiere last night in the Spotlight section of the Tribeca Film Festival. The film, which co-stars Julia Gardner, Marcia Gay Harden, Laverne Cox, Sam Elliot, and Judy Greer, was one of the biggest crowd-pleasers of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics picked it up for release later this year, with talk of an Oscar campaign for Tomlin — and for good reason. She’s dynamite in it.

She plays Elle Reid, a poet and unemployed academic who breaks up with her current girlfriend (Greer) in the opening scene, efficiently dismissing her as “a footnote.” (It’s the kind of movie where the description “writer-in-residence” is wielded as an insult.) Not long after, her granddaughter Sage (Garner) shows up with a bombshell: she’s pregnant, she’s made an appointment for later in the day, and her bum boyfriend hasn’t come through with the money. “Grab the cookies,” Grandma instructs her, and they load into the car to figure this thing out. And what begins as a search for a few hundred bucks becomes something of a journey through her past.

Paul Weitz and the cast of 'Grandma' at the Tribeca Film Festival

The simple yet clever premise allows Weitz to adopt a footloose, vignette-based structure, with juicy character bits for the likes of Cox (as a heavily inked and pierced tattoo artist), Elliot (as an old flame still nursing a 30-year-old wound), and Harden, who blows in like a hurricane as Elle’s daughter and Sage’s mother. “I’ve been scared of your mom since she was five years old,” Elle confesses, and you can see why; barking orders from a treadmill desk, she’s the kind of person who’d become a type-A personality just to rebel against loosey-goosey Elle.

It’s perhaps surprising to see a filmmaker like Weitz — whose greatest successes, both commercial (American Pie) and critical (About a Boy) were movies very much about and primarily for men — tackling a picture so decidedly about women. More surprising is how well he does it, considering all of the pitfalls involved; he never writes Elle’s sexuality sensationally, all of his characters are unmistakably three-dimensional (two more than most women in movies by men), and, in a radical departure from cinema’s usual treatment of the subject matter, he regards the abortion as no big deal, just a thing that happens.

Most importantly, however, he writes a leading role for Tomlin that’s worthy of her considerable talents. She’s a hellraiser, fiercely protective and tough as nails, yet never reduced to merely that (and she doesn’t always win her battles, sometimes to great comic effect). Her dialogue is sharp and quotable without feeling “written” (as it might coming out of the mouth of a lesser actor), because Tomlin so effortlessly projects bristling intelligence. It’s a wonderfully, wickedly funny performance.

Laverne Cox, Julia Garner, Lily Tomlin, and Paul Weitz at the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of 'Grandma'

Weitz was inspired to come up with the character, and the script, after working with Tomlin on the unsuccessful (and underrated) Admission. “All I could do was go to this dingy cafe and write this thing, which I’d had in my head for a while,” he explained in the Q&A following Monday night’s premiere. “And I was hearing Lily’s voice in it, and that was helping me write it… It was inspired by Lily’s intelligence, frankly, and by the idea of a certain amount of women’s history having been lived through, and having a knowledge of how bad things have been in certain ways.”

“I didn’t understand a word he said!” Tomlin chimed in, getting (as she so often does) a big laugh.

But you can see what he means, how just her presence — the kind of iconography she carries, the classic films she was a part of, the spirit she effortlessly projects — makes you lean towards the screen to see what she’ll do or say next. It is one of those performances, like Bruce Dern in Nebraska or Julie Christie in Away from Her, that seems a culmination of everything that’s great about a beloved actor, and a celebration of them. And sure, it’s gross to start thinking about awards so very far away from the end end of the year, but when an audience member stood up and announced “Lily Tomlin, you’re gonna win your Oscar finally,” we all cheered, and we meant it. “That would be nice,” Tomlin responded, allowing herself a smile before the pessimist in her took over and added, as the smile became a smirk, “Don’t count on it.”

Grandma screens this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s scheduled for release later this year.