Hollywood, it seems, wants to give Lily Tomlin an award. I'm all for it; she's been around a long time and has done consistently brilliant work. But if she gets an Oscar, it shouldn't be for her new movie, Grandma, which has been receiving rapturous reviews from just about everyone.
Grandma is a road movie that takes place in less than a day and doesn't leave town. The plot is simple. Within minutes of the opening scene, Tomlin's granddaughter shows up, announces she's pregnant, and complains that she doesn't have enough money to get an abortion. The search for the money impels the film's mini-odyssey, much of which takes place in an ancient automobile -- one of the movie's best characters -- that has been said to belong to Tomlin in real life.
The sequence of incidents that follow is really a loose framework for the showcasing of Tomlin's wit. She is, not surprisingly, the master of the one-line put-down, and she puts down and terrorizes everyone -- her granddaughter, her granddaughter's feckless boyfriend (who gets his comeuppance in one of the film's most satisfying moments), her daughter (played well by Marcia Gay Harden, who already has an Oscar), old friends, a variety of hapless bystanders who have the bad luck of crossing paths with her, an old beau (Sam Elliott in a role that lets him show his sensitive side, which is signaled by the absence of his trademark mustache), her car and of course herself.
It's stand-up comedy even when she's sitting down or driving, and through it all we are meant to understand that underneath the crusty, off-putting exterior beats a heart of gold.
The movie is easy to watch in part because none of the serious issues it touches on -- the ethics of abortion, women's rights, the nature of family, mother and daughter relationships, absent fathers, homosexuality, aging, the place of poetry in the modern world, the decline of liberal arts education -- are treated seriously. It's all hit and run; the last witticism has barely registered before we are gifted with the next one. It's kind of satisfying, but in the end it doesn't amount to much.
Still, the pump is well-primed for laughs, bathos, nostalgia and a few other emotions that emerge fleetingly. When, in the last shot, Tomlin walks, jauntily and indomitably, down a darkened street, her back to the camera (an homage to Chaplin?), we may even cheer; but what we will be cheering, and rightly so, is the triumphant survival of a comedy icon, not the ok-but-not-great vehicle that displays her undeniable talents.