Lily Tomlin returns to her first lead role in 27 years with an unapologetic, hilarious depiction of an ageing lesbian poet who has to help her granddaughter find money for an abortion.
Writer/Director Paul Weitz wrote the part specifically for Tomlin after working with her on Admission where she played Tina Fey’s mother. This partnership is far more successful, with Weitz skilfully utilising Tomlin’s strengths as both a dramatic and comedic dynamo. She is nicely paired with Julia Garner as her sweet, wide-eyed but far from incapable granddaughter.
The film is divided over six chapters, set in modern day Los Angeles and focuses on Elle (Tomlin) who is coping with the recent loss of her long-term life partner. She’s in a relationship with a much younger woman, Olivia (Judy Greer), who we see Elle casually discarding at the start of the film. Then Elle’s granddaughter Sage (Garner) appears in desperate need of $600 to have an abortion. Unfortunately, Grandma is broke so the ladies embark on a journey that leads them both to examine their choices and how they have impacted on others.
What’s so impressive about the film is how fully realised the characters are – each person the women encounter has left some indelible impression on one or both of our protagonists and you feel that history. The interplay is authentic and emotionally resonant particularly between Elle and her old flame (Sam Elliot) and Elle’s estranged daughter (Marcia Gay Harden, deftly avoiding caricature), who at first seems terrifying but later reveals simple disappointment at an unorthodox childhood.
Tomlin is a powerhouse, effortlessly shifting between acidic one-liners and more understated moments of quiet drama. The scenes between her and an old flame (played beautifully by Elliot) are deeply moving and elevate the film beyond simple pleasures.