‘Grandma’ is an odyssey of time and womanhood

By Conor Dennin

(Official “Grandma” Facebook Page)

Writer-director Paul Weitz opens “Grandma” with an Eileen Myles quote that is both clever and dry, yet foreshadows the film’s major motif.

“Time passes, that’s for sure.”

The quote speaks to something more universal: time. Its wry quality sharply embodies the film’s overall tone.

“Grandma” makes audiences laugh, not in the sort of bellyaching manner elicited by comedies like “Superbad” or “Bridesmaids,” but in a way that makes you smile and nod at the painful reality of aging.

We meet Elle (Lily Tomlin) in the midst of a break-up with a much younger girlfriend, Olivia, an empathetic character played with honesty by Judy Greer. The break-up leaves Elle in tears in the shower, but by the time she towels off and brushes her teeth she is laughing.

Shortly after, we meet Elle’s granddaughter, Sage. Julia Garner brilliantly occupies Sage as a delicate yet wise young woman. She comes to her grandmother asking her for the money for an abortion. I didn’t jolt in my seat when I heard this, and Weitz didn’t want me to.

“Grandma” isn’t focused on abortion or sexuality, and I am relieved that finally a film can treat these topics as non-issues. This is a film about how wisdom and humor are important weapons to wield to combat life’s daily imperfections and frustrations.

The film follows one hectic day in the life of Elle. She brings Sage on a journey that takes strange turns, but the goal is simple: Sage needs an abortion, and Elle needs to help her granddaughter. “Grandma” is told episodically. The abortion is just what the characters want and need in this movie; the movie is about how they get there.

In this way, the film references “The Odyssey.” The content of the film is about the journey, not the destination. I was less worried about whether Elle was going to achieve her goal and more focused on how Elle confronted these seemingly endless obstacles. The answer is with her sense of humor.

“Grandma” isn’t a movie in which a woman battles for acceptance among men, but rather one in which a woman brilliantly walks with her granddaughter through a world of clumsy and naïve misogynistic men.

I laughed with Elle at those who questioned her sexuality and at the men who challenged Sage’s decision to get an abortion. I grew to understand that Tomlin’s use of callous sarcasm was not a choice to give her character more appeal, but an honest tactic by Elle to combat a world full of misunderstanding and bigotry.

This is where the brilliance of Tomlin’s performance can be found. Her stillness and simplicity, her dry wit and sarcasm are perfect in this role. “Grandma” is good comedy because Elle is using these qualities for a reason. The film’s humor is purposeful, not just there for its own sake.

Elle’s brutal sarcasm, directed at an annoying barista in one memorable scene, exemplifies her attempt to confront the daily annoyances that occur because the men in Elle’s life are too lazy or too inept to act in a way that is helpful or respectful of her. Through her clever genius, Tomlin transforms Elle into an Odysseus-style warrior in suburban California.

“Grandma” reclaims the impulse to laugh in the face of tragedy. Elle’s sharp sense of dry humor is not a quality that Tomlin chooses to warm her audience to her character. Rather, Tomlin realizes that Elle is a woman faced with the constant stupidity of others and the harsh ignorance of the world around her.

Her only way to cope is to laugh at her world. Her sarcasm protects her and her teasing keeps her sane. In a world that appears idiotic to her, she has no choice but to treat everyone like idiots. And that is hilarious.

In an era in which we readily consume comedy that is cheap and absurd, I felt refreshed that a film could remind us that humor is a psychological impulse with the ability to confront the harsh realities of time and life. She isn’t laugh out loud funny, but Elle is one of the strongest characters I have ever seen on the screen.

Her strength is measured in the comments and wise cracks she lobs at those who stand in her way. Comedy can be art, art that speaks to collective human experiences. Tomlin’s performance in “Grandma” reminded me of this delightful reality.

That opening Eileen Myles quote implies a simple truth that “Grandma” conveys masterfully – life is short, it’s fleeting, and because of that, the only choice we have is to laugh it off.

Conor Dennin can be reached at [email protected]