An epic performance by Lily TomlinMovie Review Thursday, September 3rd, 2015
Lily Tomlin is having a very good year. That’s not saying too much. The 76-year-old actress and comedian has been considered one of the funniest people in America for more than 50 years, and she’s had some great years. She became a regular on Laugh In in 1970, was nominated for an Oscar for being quite serious in Robert Altman’s Nashville in 1974, and won a Tony in 1985 for Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which was written by Tomlin’s partner since 1971 Jane Wagner. This year, she starred along with Jane Fonda in the critically acclaimed Netflix series Grace & Frankie and received her 22nd Emmy nomination; she’s won six. I think she’s going to get her second Oscar nomination for Paul Weitz’s Grandma. But the awards are just icing for the cake that is a performance so funny, silly, layered, moving, brave, and, yes, wonderfully, gay that she justifies her place in the pantheon of great American film actresses.
Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a cantankerous lesbian poet who seems to be somewhat inspired by former San Diegan Eileen Myles, one of whose books Elle tries to sell in an early scene. Elle has never been terribly successful, but she had a following and had made money teaching. But when her partner of decades and co-mother to their daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden) died, Elle has gone broke and seems to have become unglued and directionless. For instance, she’s shredded her credit cards and turned the pieces into an outdoor mobile. In the film’s opening scene, Elle is fighting with and then dumping her much younger new girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer), and Elle is not nice about it. But that hardened spite is just a defense against the terror of loss, and we see her breakdown in the shower just after Olivia leaves. Then her teenage granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) knocks on her door, tells Elle she needs $500 for an abortion and that they can’t tell Sage’s mother Judy. Elle must pull herself together, find the money, and earn redemption in time for Sage’s late afternoon appointment.
The story follows Elle and Sage through Los Angeles as they visit various and sundry friends Elle thinks owe her money or may be willing to help out. This includes a tattoo artist played by Laverne Cox, a café owner played by the late Elizabeth Pena, and most profoundly her ex Karl, played by Sam Elliott. In his ten minutes of screen time, Elliott gives undoubtedly the best performance of his career, and his chemistry with Tomlin is as easy as Karl’s memory of hurt is long. It is in this scene that the film turns slyly from a somewhat slapstick road movie to an examination of aging, guilt, love and duty. This sets up the third act when Sage and Elle finally have to deal with the very difficult Judy.
As I was watching the film and marveling at how smartly written it was I wondered who this new lesbian screenwriter was who managed to get these great actors and Weitz to direct them. (Because in addition to Tomlin and Elliott, everyone is great, especially Greer and Harden.) Then I discovered the straight Weitz wrote this fantastic, utterly believable lesbian in Elle, and I was impressed yet again by his skill, seen before particularlyin About a Boy and Being Flynn. Tomlin’s performance is epic and only she could have done the role, but it is Weitz’s crafting, both with words and with the directions for his actors that made it possible.
Written and directed by Paul Weitz
Starring Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner and Sam Elliott
Opens Sept. 4 at Landmark Hillcrest
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