Sunday, August 30, 2015
Lily is in Bloom Again
Isn't it nice when a National Treasure gets to remind us how she got that way?
As a film, Grandma is built from the ground up for Lily Tomlin, and while it may not be a deathless example of cinematic art on the whole, she wrings every drop from it. Dotted with showy cameos for everyone from Sam Elliott to Laverne Cox, and featuring sterling support from Marcia Gay Harden and especially from the young and enchanting Julia Garner as her daughter and granddaughter respectively, it's nonetheless Lily's show from start to finish. Playing a high-strung and surprisingly unlikable character (in her milder moments she's merely insulting; when annoyed, which is frequently, she goes straight to ballistic), she plays a thousand variations on disdain and contempt, interspersed heartbreakingly with shards of regret and a flicker of genuine hope. It's a symphony of sadness, and you get a sense that it's a very rough patch for a character who has known and deeply regrets better days, not only materially but spiritually.
If the script, to its credit, spends little time trying to make any of the principal characters especially sympathetic (the daughter is a virago; the granddaughter one of those infuriatingly blank young people who drift through life as if the universe were invented about 2005), Lily wastes not a moment on such frills. Her tough old woman, Elle, (despite very occasional signs of a warm, if broken, heart) is a creature of rage and frustration, and when here and there one sees signs of Comic Lily in the crusty old lesbian poet, they are fleeting fragments of expression almost always turned inward, on some half-forgotten memory or wry recognition of her own limitations (physical from age; emotional from temperament).
The movie, too, is a reminder of what an amazing physical actress Tomlin is, from her shambling walk, almost Chaplinesque in the movie's final moments as she goes on her way alone, to her increasingly monumental face. Despite a few telltales signs of medical tidying, hers remains a visage of infinite nuance as well as the broadest possible expression. As the decades have passed, it's clear that she ranks with the biggest of the screen's character ladies - comparisons to Marie Dressler and Ethel Barrymore aren't out of place - in using her physical instrument in the service of the right role. If she's consistently marvelous in her other current incarnation, on the Netflix series Grace and Frankie, here she takes her work to an entirely different level, to the the kind of achievement that in the past she's reached only in collaboration with Robert Altman or her own lifelong partner Jane Wagner.
In the end, I left Grandma feeling as I do when closing the cover of a very good novel: intrigued but satisfied. There is little that's too pat or contrived in the denouement, even if one has to suspend a certain amount of disbelief at the beginning to push the plot - at times almost as rickety as the aging sedan that forms one of the principal sets - on its picaresque way. Good things might come along for Elle, or maybe even worse ones; she leads a life that lends itself neither to stability nor, particularly, to content. If there is just a shade of sitcomesque resolution to the subsidiary mother-daughter storyline for Harden and Garner, Tomlin gives herself no such easy respite. Walking off into the night, Elle joins the movies' other drifters (the Little Tramp to Mrs. Stone and far beyond) and we return to a world that, while perhaps a shade duller than hers, is at least a touch more comfortable.
Speaking of which, I have to add a word about the very odd place I saw this Indie darling of a picture. Rather than the usual faceless multiplex, I hied myself a little further to what passes these days for an "art house," a glossy and itself rather faceless incarnation of kind of place that once upon a time relied on eccentricity and stale popcorn for its limited charms. Not so this one, nor the neighborhood (if that's exactly the right word) that it inhabits. The theatre - an intimidatingly gleaming collection of screening rooms, to which have been added all mod cons from escalators to wine bar - is the centerpiece of a new development that is less neighborhood than a sort of participatory urban-esque experience (were it out in the Sandlands, it would doubtless be described as both "bespoke" and "world-class"). It was less like an actual place than a film-set's surreal invocation of one, a conglomeration of shops and restaurants and mid-rise apartment buildings grouped around a green, over which a vast screen presides like a bucolic refugee from Blade Runner.
The buildings, altogether, provide a feeling that is aggressively modern and about as convincing in their authenticity as Colonial Williamsburg or Disney's Main Street. I walked around for a while afterward, enjoying the early evening (the light failing a little earlier every day now, summer slowly ebbing) and marveled at the vast variety of things these days that can be described as "artisanal," from olive oil to shaving cream to hummus (perhaps they're all made of the same stuff, endlessly repackaged?). It was all very pleasant, but one imagines that someone like Elle would have a word or two about its self-satisfied bourgeois atmosphere of entitlement and, by implication, exclusion. It brought to mind what it might be like to walk around some lovely if characterless downtown neighborhood, but as a wholly created and artificial thing, you could never forget how invented it all is; down that quaint alley is nothing but a parking garage, and around the corner from that tempting seafood bar, all bright awnings and packed sidewalk tables, is a vacant lot and the spread of suburbia beyond.
Being so tidy and new, it lacks many of the trappings of real urbanity, from litter to panhandlers. Instead, on the corners, I ran instead into what amount to faith-handlers - well-dressed young men sidling up to passers-by and inviting them to church (asked if I were Christian, I stared at the person in a way that perhaps called Elle to mind more than I intended, judging from the way he jumped back when I simply replied "no" and moved on). Altogether, it was pretty and comfortable and entirely dispiriting. I think I'd rather go to the multiplex, even it meant passing on the artisanal tandoori popcorn.