Grandma sees Lily Tomlin ‘bringing a fire that will have the the Sarah Silvermans and the Amy Schumers of this world itching to up their game’ says MacDara Conroy

Don’t call it a comeback, she’s been here for years. Lily Tomlin, that is. While it may well be almost three decades since her last starring role (in the Bette Midler vehicle Big Business), she’s never really been away from our screens, popping up in the films of Robert Altman and David O Russell before a return to TV, long before it was cool, with a long-standing recurring role on The West Wing to which she brought her trademark sardonic wit.

A recent beneficiary of the Netflix bingewatch treatment with Jane Fonda in Grace and Frankie, Tomlin – now aged 76, but clearly much younger at heart – has a relevance that usually only applies to the males of her generation; perhaps that’s down to her sense of humour so easily bridging the gap from the Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In days to the contemporary US comedy scene. And on the evidence presented in Grandma, she can still hang with the best, whatever the gender.

Grandma is quite the relief, too, considering the past filmography of writer-director Paul Weitz, best known for collaborating with his brother Chris on the zeitgeist-catching gross-out comedy of American Pie, and gaining some kudos with Nick Hornby adaptation About a Boy, but more recently slumming it with the failed Potter-craze cash-in franchise Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant and unnecessary Stiller/De Niro sequel Little Fockers. There were some hints of greater depth and nuance in 2013’s uneven rom-com Admission, which counted Tomlin in its cast. But it seems putting Tomlin and Weitz together with an original screenplay – and a micro-budget of just $600,000 – has achieved the right cinematic alchemy, bringing out the best in both of them.

Not that you’d know that from the brief synopsis, giving the impression of a rambling odyssey as Tomlin’s Grandma Elle and her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) drive around LA trying to scrounge up $600 before the end of the day. Or the opening scenes showing the death throes of a May-to-December relationship, crying-in-the-shower cliché and all. But then Weitz cuts from Judy Greer’s sobbing to Tomlin brushing her teeth, mouth open wide in a Cheshire cat grin, and, much like with Alexander Payne’s cross-generational road movie Nebraska, there’s the spark of something much more interesting going on here.

Tomlin’s Elle finds some respite from her relationship woes, her grief over the death of life partner Violet (really wife, if society were more accepting) and her recent failure as a poet (in a literary world where “writer-in-residence” counts as a grave insult) in the unlikeliest of circumstances: Sage is pregnant, and she needs the money for an abortion she’s hurriedly booked for later that afternoon. Grandma doesn’t have it – she’s paid off all her bills and cut up her credit cards, proving you can be bad about being good with money – so the pair set off in Vi’s old car to hit up friends and acquaintances, and an old flame, for whatever cash they can get their hands on.

Progressing in chapters with an episodic feel, the true heart of the picture reveals itself bit by bit. It’s in the realness of Elle’s relationship with her granddaughter, a chip off the old block when it comes to money management skills but who doesn’t escape Grandma’s disapproval for her taste in guys. (Garner’s decent here as the typical millennial who slowly comes to realise she’s not as worldly-wise as she thinks she is.) It’s in the awkwardness of Elle’s relationships with everyone else who was once close to her, especially her own daughter, Sage’s highly strung mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden in a small but substantial part).

It’s in the sweetness – and sharpness – of their encounters with the more eccentric characters in Elle’s life, from a sassy tattoo artist (Laverne Cox, Orange is the New Black) to a laconic suburban cowboy (Sam Elliott showing a fragility hitherto unseen beyond his writings) to an almost self-parodying hipster café owner (the late Elizabeth Peña). (Another café scene, with a cameo by Harold & Kumar’s John Cho as an uptight barista, betrays the script’s origins as an honest-to-god coffee shop screenplay.)

But it’s largely carried by Tomlin, getting to play someone most ostensibly like herself as an openly gay woman for the first time in her career, no audience-appeasement bullshit attached. She visibly relaxes into her role as the hours in movie-time pass by, and lets her guard down with caution as she evokes the pathos in Weitz’s lines and situation. But maybe most importantly, she never forgets to be really fucking funny, bringing a fire that will have the the Sarah Silvermans and the Amy Schumers of this world itching to up their game.

Grandma opens in selected cinemas on December 11th

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