REVIEW: Grandma

6 09 2015

GrandmaPaul Weitz’s “Grandma” gets underway once teenaged Sage (Julia Garner) shows up to humbly solicit funds for an abortion from Lily Tomlin’s Elle Reid, her estranged grandmother.  While Sage might be necessary to kickstart the story, there is no doubt the titular character really drives the engine of this compact road trip.  The journey is for Sage, but it is about Elle.

Weitz wrote the role of Elle for Tomlin, and the part fits like a glove.  Among the many traits of this multifaceted character, Tomlin gets to play up two qualities present in her most memorable performances: intelligence and idiosyncrasy.  Elle is a poet who peaked professionally in the ’60s and never quite found her footing again, scrapping together income to stay afloat from teaching and lecturing.

Now, widowed and still grieving the loss of her beloved partner Violet, the kooky Elle is even more stuck in the past than ever before.  She cuts up her credit cards for fun and tosses around the phrase “pod person” as if “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” were as recognizable a cultural touchstone as “X-Men.”  Sage needs the most immediate help to procure her procedure, to be sure, but Elle also requires an attitude adjustment of her own.

As she drives her vintage car around town to solicit funds – and giving Sage a boot camp in Second Wave feminism in the process – Elle has to confront the pains of her past and decide the face of her future.  Decades-old layers of resentment frequently lead to some acerbic interactions, especially with her own daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden).  But the brilliance of Tomlin’s performance is that she never loses track of Elle’s raw emotion or her beating heart; she and Weitz nail the balance between sardonic and sincere.  The voyage with Elle proves all too short (only 79 minutes?!), though each moment along the way feels poignant and completely fulfilling.  B+3stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 20, 2015)

20 08 2015

Lily Tomlin won the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year, yet she somehow still feels underappreciated. Or maybe that’s just because she kept a low profile after the peak of her stardom in the 1970s and was known mostly to members of my generation as the voice of Ms. Frizzle on “The Magic School Bus.” But thanks to perfectly tailored roles in Netflix’s “Grace & Frankie” and the new film “Grandma,” Tomlin definitely seems poised for a major moment once again.

But Tomlin’s career is not necessarily being “rescued.”  In fact, some of her best work has come from the slow and steady decades between her peaks of public interest.  Case in point: “I Heart Huckabees,” the film that landed David O. Russell in director jail after he went for Tomlin’s jugular on set.  In spite of that tension, the movie still turned out alright – even if I did not immediately recognize it on first viewing five years ago.

Russell has gained a reputation for stylish, quirky films with his so-called “reinvention” trilogy that began with 2010’s “The Fighter.”  But that idiosyncratic spirit certainly existed before then, and “I Heart Huckabees” might mark its most vibrant display.  Working with co-writer Jeff Baena, Russell crafts a so-called “existential comedy” that mines philosophy and ontology for laughs that might make Woody Allen green with envy.  As such, it merits my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Beneath all the hilarious intellectual banter lies a very simple story about a man, Jason Schwartzman’s Albert Markovski, an environmental activist who just wants to know what it’s all about.  “It,” of course, is the very meaning of life itself.  After a series of odd coincidences, he turns to a pair of existential detectives, Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin’s husband and wife team Bernard and Vivian Jaffe.  This duo claims that they can – with enough field research – determine how everything in Albert’s life connects.  They set out to find his place in the grand plan of the universe, optimistically sure that such a thing exists.

But after a while, Albert falls prey to the Jaffe’s nemesis and ideological counterpart, Isabelle Huppert’s Caterine Vauban. She offers similar services but with the nihilistic assertion that nothing relates to anything.  The longer Bernard and Vivian take to complete their assessment of Albert’s life, the more appealing Caterine’s services look.

Albert’s quest for self-knowledge gets complicated by others who seek out the detectives’ services, such as Mark Wahlberg’s Tommy Corn, a firefighter who can chew anyone’s ear off with his views on the harmfulness of petroleum.  Russell has utilized Wahlberg in three films now, and this is certainly his most ingenious performance among the trio.  While the actor is notorious for his authentic off-screen anger and street cred, Russell funnels those traits into a hilariously exaggerated character professing a hyper-verbal righteous indignation.  For Wahlberg, often more likely to rely on the swagger of his body than the power of his words, the performance feels revelatory (and perhaps indicative of even more untapped potential).

The quirky crew does not end there, with Jude Law also in the mix as Brad Stand, a corporate executive at the company Huckabees determined to take Albert down by figuring out the meaning of his own life.  Naomi Watts’ Dawn Campbell, Brad’s girlfriend and the star of Huckabees’ ad campaign, gets thrown in for good measure too.  Both are slightly minor players but still players nonetheless.

Russell throws some really dense, cerebral concepts out there in “I Heart Huckabees” – and at the lightning-fast speed of his dialogue, no less.  But so long as you can keep up, the film proves a rewarding, stimulating experience with something to say about the equilibrium between pragmatism and pessimism that we need to get through the day.





REVIEW: Admission

24 08 2013

Some movies do not fit neatly into categories.  For some, this means a refreshing streak of iconoclasm.  For others, however, it means a wavering indecision on the part of the filmmakers that can prove quite frustrating to watch.  Paul Weitz’s “Admission” is definitely more of the latter.

The film is not quite a rom-com, not quite a comedy, but also not really a drama.  It’s just a strange mix of tonal swings tied together by a story.  Despite the presence of the very funny Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, “Admission” has very little to laugh about.  And surprisingly, in spite of the loving glances they shoot each other in the film’s poster, their sexual tension remains a set of undeveloped hints.

Fey’s character is also extremely similar to the one she played in the 2008 romp “Baby Mama.”  The slightly uptight career woman experiencing regret about not settling down to have kids is quickly on its way to becoming as clichéd as Reese Witherspoon’s perfect belle having two men fight over her.  In “Admission,” she plays a strung-out Princeton admissions counselor dealing with mommy issues when a potential new admit could be the son she gave up for adoption back in college.

Even though I’m three years removed from the college admissions process, watching the Princeton committees debate the merits of applicants by reducing them to test scores and résumés still sent shivers up my spine.  It’s tough and rather disheartening to watch Portia try to fight for an unconventional candidate and face an insurmountable uphill battle the entire way.  The whole process is rather strung out and tense, and the overall mood left after the dust settles is one of depression.

By the end, “Admission” decides it most wants to be a drama after all.  And it actually does produce a decent conclusion, one that satisfies by not coming to any neat and tidy answers.  Because that’s what life is – anything but easy (just like getting into Princeton, apparently).  Better the film come to this tough realization than make us sit through a clichéd one that we’ve already seen in more defined and self-assured movies.  B-2stars