A movie about a wisecracking grandma and her teen granddaughter, racing around in a beat-up car to find $600 by nightfall. You might think it sounds like any number of mediocre road comedies out there, full of trite generational gags and sporting a sappy, all-is-forgiven ending.
You’d be very wrong.
“Grandma” is, instead, a brisk, bittersweet and moving film, rightfully devoted to displaying the singular talent of Lily Tomlin — especially her striking ability to fuse acerbity and crankiness with empathy and humanity, and to find the essential lovability way, way down at the core of an unlikeable person.
The film, directed and written by Paul Weitz, is also about abortion, a theme that could easily have taken over every line and frame. But somehow, it leaves us thinking even more about what it means to be someone’s mother, someone’s daughter, someone’s granddaughter — and what it means to grow old. Credit for that last part goes to Tomlin and also to Sam Elliott, who darned near steals the show in a scene with Tomlin that, well, they should immediately start showing in acting classes — to demonstrate what two actors can convey in just a few minutes about a lifelong relationship.
Tomlin is Elle, a brilliant poet and professor who, perhaps due to her facility with words, doesn’t mince them. We meet Elle in her living room, mid-breakup with her younger girlfriend (Judy Greer). “You were a footnote,” Elle tells her lover, with resigned honesty more than spite. But in the shower later, alone, she weeps.
We soon learn Elle is still suffering the loss of her longtime romantic partner, Violet, which explains much of her bitterness. She’s also clearly at odds with her stressed, workaholic daughter, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden, pitch-perfect). But when teen granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner, appealingly natural) comes knocking, Elle’s ready to help.
Turns out Sage needs an abortion, and fast; the only free appointment is that evening, and it’s $600, which has Elle immediately ranting about how it’s impossible to get a reasonably priced abortion these days. Sage has no money, but doesn’t want to bring her judgmental mother into the picture. Elle herself is fairly broke, scraping by on a college writer-in-residence gig. She’s recently paid off her debt and cut her credit cards into scraps, which now serve as wind chimes.
Elle is angry — as we see in an unnervingly funny mini-breakdown she has in a coffee shop — but not at Sage. First, she’s angry at Sage’s obnoxious, good-for-nothing boyfriend, who has no intention of contributing to the abortion until Elle pretty much beats him — physically — into submission and grabs the few dollars he has. They also try Elle’s old friend Deathy (Laverne Cox, of “Orange is the New Black”), a tattoo artist who can only offer a free tattoo.
Elle has one more idea: Karl, an old flame. She shows up on his doorstep, and at first, it seems like it’ll be an easy solution. But then the layers of the onion get peeled back — suddenly, startlingly. Karl’s laconic demeanor and sexy drawl make it all the more shocking when his emotion — rage, resentment, and more — comes gushing forth. The scene is not to be missed.
Of course, Judy (Harden) eventually must emerge, and she’s a trip: She works at a treadmill desk, and has espresso running through her veins. But Judy isn’t the shrew she initially seems. In one of the better scenes, three generations of women come together for a moment — very brief — in which it becomes clear that even in the nuttiest families, there are bonds that supersede all that craziness.
We won’t spoil the story, but in the end, it’s just Elle on the screen. As it should be. Tomlin, at 75, is operating at full throttle, and she deserves that final shot, all alone.
“Grandma,” a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for language and some drug use.” Running time: 79 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Follow AP National Writer Jocelyn Noveck on Twitter at https://www.Twitter.com/JocelynNoveckAP