There is a heartbreaking scene between Lily Tomlin and Sam Elliott toward the end of “Grandma” that is one of the finest things either has ever done on film – or, for that matter, ever will do. In Elliott’s case, it’s his finest film moment. In Tomlin’s, it will always have to contend with her masterpiece – John Bailey’s 1991 film of her one-woman show “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” which was written by her life partner Jane Wagner.
Lily Tomlin is, legendarily, a piece of work. So is her eponymous character in “Grandma” (whose fictional name, revealingly, is “Elle”). But then Paul Weitz’s movie is itself a piece of work, in which it couldn’t be more obvious at every turn why Tomlin clearly embraced it so wholeheartedly that the film makes comic use of an actual 1955 Dodge owned by its star.
She has never been easy to work with. She’s admitted that from the beginning – most famously early on after shooting Robert Benton’s “The Late Show.” Go online, type in “Lily Tomlin and David O. Russell” and watch a candid video in horror as her harsh complaints to her director Russell during the filming of “I Heart Huckabees” light the match that causes a Russell explosion of volcanic profanity and magnitude.
Her periodic difficulties have, no doubt, accounted for her having approximately one-third the career many of us wanted her to have. In every second of Weitz’s “Grandma” you can see the kind of very funny and moving film that would allow Tomlin to breathe deeply, mutter “at last” to herself and bless her luck for starring in the kind of movie she should be making.
She’s wonderful – not always artfully directed by Weitz, but so intrinsically perfect for this script that I think the two of them spent the shoot blessing their good fortune in such a collaboration.
She plays a once highly thought of feminist poet whose life has stalled while she deals with grief over the death of her life partner. “I’m an academic” she says now with no small rue. “An unemployed one.”
She’s also a lifelong rebel – constantly marinating in disgust at an increasingly dispiriting world. She cut up all her credit cards and made wind-chimes out them. (Don’t examine that claim too closely; just swing with Weitz’s script in good faith.)
She has broken up with a new, much-younger partner (Judy Greer) and now freely admits to anyone interested: “I’m a horrible person.”
At that exact moment, as if to test that proposition, her granddaughter shows up at her front door with the news that she’s in immediate need of $630 for an abortion.
“I’ve turned my life into art,” says Grandma, explaining why she doesn’t have that amount of cash at the ready.
So many bracing things are treated matter-of-factly in “Grandma” that you can understand why a performer as sensitive and feisty and feminist as Tomlin would give this movie everything she’s got.
And so she does most of the time, often to brilliant effect. The film is often terribly funny but, because its basic subject matter is serious, you’re engrossed, too, in the tale of a granddaughter and grandmother having to rely on a huge reservoir of love that neither one, in their less needy moments, wants anything to do with.
If you’re at all suddenly startled by Tomlin so visible after so many damnable years of apparently self-imposed obscurity (she has also made a TV sitcom with Jane Fonda called “Grace and Frankie” for Netflix), she’s entered a time of life when she can deliver a joyously sour line like “I like being old. Young people are stupid.”
I dare say there are, at most, half a dozen living American actresses who can make that line both sing and make it work in perfect dramatic context at the same time in a movie.
Tomlin is one of them. Hallelujah for having her back.
And if you care about either one of them after all these years, don’t miss her scene with Elliott. It’s one of 2015’s great movie moments.