Granny’s a Bitch

Grandma. A film by Paul Weitz

Elle (Lily Tomlin), the title character of Grandma, is almost unbelievably grouchy. Within the first twenty minutes of the movie she has broken up with what seems to be a perfectly nice and quite lovely girlfriend (Judy Greer), made a spectacle of herself in a local coffee shop and purposely spilled coffee on the floor, and whacked her granddaughter’s boyfriend in the nuts with a hockey stick (to be fair, the guy had threatened her). She’s 75 years old, still has all her teeth—a fact which she’s quite proud of—and is out, apparently, for blood. Some people in the small theater where I saw the film found all this funny. I was on the verge of walking out.

Grumpy people are funny, I know, especially grumpy old ladies. Maggie Smith has made a second career out of being such a person, and I haven’t found her beyond the bounds of good taste. So let’s see what Elle has to be grumpy about. Her partner of many years died about a year ago (that’s a little vague), and that’s certainly a reason to be out of sorts, though she felt well enough to hook up with a new woman. She is a poet, and I have found poets to be the most underappreciated, overly sensitive, and wildly paranoid people on the planet. Another poet gets a good review and they’re depressed for days. Elle’s would-be girlfriend insults her with the term “Writer in Residence!” as if she has sold out, but most poets I know would kill for such a post.

She’s pretty much dead busted, has only $43.00 to her name, but that’s because she paid off $27,000 in debts and tore up her credit cards, so she’s debt free and expecting a major check in the mail next week. She drives a laughably old car that once belonged to her partner, but she’s obviously a person who could afford better. (The car itself, a 1955 Dodge Royal, actually belongs to Lily Tomlin. That’s the most interesting fact I know about her.)

The plot of the movie is that her absolutely adorable granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) has gotten pregnant and decided she wants an abortion; she doesn’t get along with her mother so she’s come to Grandma for help. She knew Grandma was eccentric, but had no idea she was flat busted and had torn up her credit cards. So in one of the weirder buddy films of all time (Thelma and Louise it’s not), grandma and granddaughter set out to try to scrape up 600 bucks by 5:45 PM, when Sage is scheduled to have her procedure. Her boyfriend said he’d have the money that morning but has let her down. Grandma is her only hope.

My wife and I went to this movie because it starred Lily Tomlin; that alone was enough to send me to the theater, whatever the reviews said. For those first twenty minutes, I thought we’d made a terrible mistake. This character was so hateful that she was making me not like Lily Tomlin. But halfway into the movie, she had a scene with another oldster movie staple, Sam Elliott, sans cowboy hat. And that one scene turned the whole movie around.

For one thing, it deepens Elle’s character; she had once been married to Karl (Elliott), not because she was confused about her sexual identity, but because she had trouble accepting it. She tells him she wants the money to pay rent because she has issues with him about pregnancy and abortion that are complicated and far beyond what most couples face. That comes out in some rapid fire dialogue that is actually the first scene in the movie that’s really been worth listening to.

Karl is also the first person to even faintly question the idea of having an abortion. He’s been married four times, has multiple children and grandchildren, and is fully in favor of babies. He hasn’t seen Elle for 30 years (though they live pretty close), doesn’t especially think of her as a lesbian, though he knew she had a female partner. They smoke a joint together, drink a beer; he says he’ll give her the money for a kiss, then wants to make love. He’s looking seedy and uncharming; this isn’t the drop dead handsome man from even as recent a film as I’ll See You in my Dreams. But he rages at one point against old age, then rages at Elle and Sage when he realizes what they want the money for. The film drops to a whole new level of seriousness with that scene. It’s the best single scene in the movie, and if I could see it again with watching those first 20 minutes, I’d do it.

That leaves these two female buddies one option: go see the woman they have both been avoiding, Elle’s daughter and Sage’s mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden). She responded to a rather unconventional upbringing (two women for parents, one of the them African American, the other a grouchy poet) by becoming hell on wells, a female executive so work obsessed and competent that she not only has a standup desk, it’s a treadmill. She’s a ballbuster (Elle says to Sage, “I’ve been afraid of your mother since she was five years old”), but she’s also in the right, told Sage her boyfriend was a loser and had a feeling this whole thing was coming. She’s furious at what has happened, it’s ruined her day, sent her schedule into a tizzy, but she does give her daughter the money.

This is a lesbian feminist old lady feelgood movie; the whole thing is about female bonding and the difficult lives of women, and no one—except good old Sam Elliott—questions the wish to have an abortion. I believe in a woman’s right to choose because I’m a man and can’t get pregnant when I have sex, but I also believe abortion is wrong and that it shouldn’t be used as a method of birth control. Neither woman I’ve been with would have had an abortion under any circumstances, though they’re both feminists. This movie has a kind of “we’re all good progressives and of course we believe in all the progressive causes” feel to it, and it also seems to be saying: Of course she’s grouchy. She’s a lesbian in this culture! She’s old! She’s a poet! Those are reasons for treating the guy in the coffeehouse like shit? Really?

More actually happens at the end of this movie to deepen it; I’ve already dropped enough spoilers, so I won’t give any more (though I don’t think they spoil anything. This story isn’t driven by plot). I actually liked the movie after that first 20 minutes (the whole thing is only 80 minutes long), and left the theater glad I’d gone. But there was a much deeper movie on this subject waiting to be made. I just don’t think the filmmaker was interested. He wanted to go for the grouchy old lady laughs. But not all grouchy behavior is funny.