REVIEW | ‘Grandma’ lets Tomlin shine

Legendary actress Lily Tomlin wreaks havoc as feminist poet and crazy grandma Elle in Paul Weitz’s amusing and tender “Grandma.” Ever since premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, critics have been raving about Tomlin, and she doesn’t disappoint. She’s lively and sincere, crafting a rambunctious character that’s sympathetic but certainly not saintly.

Instead of spending 15 or 20 minutes neatly setting up the characters and story, Weitz plops us right down in the midst of the action, allowing for character development on the go.

Elle has just broken up with her younger girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer), and still hasn’t quite gotten over the death of her longtime partner, Violet, from a little more than a year before. In an attempt to free herself further, she’s paid off all her debts and shredded her credit card — bad timing. Her estranged granddaughter, Sage (Julie Garner), comes knocking on her door; she’s pregnant and needs $600 for an abortion.

But there’s no time to sit and talk: Elle (who’s sufficiently broke) springs into action, and within 10 minutes of the movie’s brisk 80-minute run time, they’re off in search of the money, which also gives Elle a chance to reconnect with various friends and family members. The daylong time period and unconventional use of the ticking-clock device to get Sage to her scheduled abortion appointment keeps the film tight and organized; there’s a clear objective our protagonists are trying to achieve.

The first third or so of the movie, with its breathless and sharply amusing dialogue, falls primarily in the comedic realm. Weitz keeps the picture moving at a snappy pace, never letting the comedic momentum die down.

However, at about the halfway point, Weitz slows things down a bit and tones back the comedy, as an already-eventful day turns into any even more eventful one, thick with serious introspection. Unresolved tensions between Elle’s estranged daughter, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), and ex-husband Karl (a terrific Sam Elliott, equal parts silly and vulnerable) come bubbling to the surface.

Weitz weaves in weighty themes of loss, regret, abandonment, feminism and parenthood, while also keeping the comedic element intact, preventing the movie from becoming too depressing. Overall, “Grandma” attains a balanced blend of comedy and drama.

None of this would be possible without Tomlin. She plays a grandma you’d both want to have and one you’d be embarrassed by. Elle is feisty, blunt and a little crazy. Tomlin’s screwball timing is impeccable, and much like the film, she eventually tones back the comedy to make room for introspection and dissect her character’s psyche.

“Grandma” doesn’t cut as deep as it could; the ending is perhaps too neat, resolving some fairly heavy conflicts a little too easily. Yet, Tomlin’s performance (as well as the rest of the performances) and Weitz’s thoughtful direction provides the film with an appealing and energetic authenticity that’s difficult to dislike.

(Rated R for language and some drug use.)