Tom­lin sparkles in a choice cut

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS - TARA BRADY DON­ALD CLARKE

GRANDMA Di­rected by Paul Weitz. Star­ring Lily Tom­lin, Ju­lia Garner, Marcia Gay Har­den, Judy Greer, Laverne Cox, El­iz­a­beth Peña, Sam El­liott. Cert 16, gen­eral release, 79mins On pa­per, the synop­sis of Grandma reads as if the film was cre­ated with the ex­press in­ten­tion of an­noy­ing the rightwing moral mavens at Fox News. A cri­sis-preg­nancy com­edy – uh, oh – fea­tur­ing Lily Tom­lin as Elle, a re­tired les­bian poet whose grand­daugh­ter, Sage ( The Perks of Be­ing a Wallflower’s Ju­lia Garner) needs an abor­tion. Laverne Cox, the trans­gen­der star of Or­ange is the New Black, has a sup­port­ing role as a tat­too artist.

Be­fore any­one reaches for their plac­ard of choice, Grandma is rather more com­pli­cated than its pitch – or its anti-ar­senumb­ing run time – might sug­gest.

The prospect of ter­mi­na­tion is not, de­spite oc­ca­sional out­bursts of pro-choice bravado from the epony­mous hero­ine, taken lightly by ei­ther of the two women, who head off in Elle’s creaky 1955 Dodge Royal mother-in-law, to a com­pre­hen­sive study of the woman who helped in­tro­duce Amer­ica to mod­ern art. Ev­ery cor­ner has been probed. We be­gin with Peggy Guggen­heim’s early life as a Man­hat­tan heiress (her fa­ther fa­mously died on the Ti­tanic) and then to Paris where she moved among a de­li­cious ar­ray of the cen­tury’s most for­ma­tive tal­ents. She heard Joyce sing tra­di­tional songs. She met Gertrude Stein, Pablo Pi­casso and Salvador Dali.

When asked what ques­tion he would put to her, Diego Cortez, the no wave cu­ra­tor, replies: “How was Sa­muel Beck­ett in bed?” Cortez does not seem to be as sound on gen­der as we might have hoped, (Tom­lin’s own) in or­der to raise the funds re­quired. Their ad­ven­tures take in for­got­ten fem­i­nist sub­cul­tures, Sage’s ne’er-do-well ex-boyfriend, one of Elle’s bruised old flames (Sam El­liott) and multi­gen­er­a­tional fric­tion: Sage has never heard of Betty Friedan’s The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique; Elle doesn’t but his query does help con­firm that she in­hab­ited the in­ner­most cir­cle of High Bo­hemia.

It seems she be­gan col­lect­ing con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous art as a hobby. She had a keen eye, good ad­vi­sors and a canny at­ti­tude to money. By the 1950s her New York gallery was a nir­vana for the new move­ments. Guggen­heim was in­stru­men­tal in launch­ing Jackson Pol­lock and acted as a pa­tron for the drip­per dur­ing his ris­ing years.

Vree­land struc­tures her film around a se­ries of taped in­ter­views (long thought lost) that Guggen­heim gave to her bi­og­ra­pher Jacqueline Bo­grad Weld. The chipped pa­tri­cian voice talks us through a life that seems char­ac­terised by in­se­curi-

Multi-gen­er­a­tional fric­tion: Lily Tom­lin and Ju­lia Garner in Grandma

know who Mys­tique from X-Men is.

Mostly, this is a stealth study of grief: Elle has not, de­spite the ro­man­tic in­ter­est of a younger lover (Judy Greer), come to terms with the loss of her part­ner of 40 years, and her loss is trum­peted in out­bursts of mis­an­thropy and scorn. When we fi­nally met Sage’s mom (Marcia Gay Har­den), we re­alise that this was a fam­ily trait even be­fore the loss.

Paul Weitz, the co-cre­ator of Amer­i­can Pie, wrote the clever, con­sis­tently funny, sur­pris­ingly af­fect­ing script es­pe­cially for Tom­lin, who hearts back with one of the best per­for­mances of the year. ty. There were many lovers. She suf­fered some spousal abuse. No one man seems to have con­nected sat­is­fac­to­rily with an in­ac­ces­si­ble psy­che. Still, she forged a sin­gu­lar ca­reer at a time when women col­lec­tors were reg­u­larly pa­tro­n­ised.

The di­rec­tor does not stint on the talk­ing heads. John Richard­son and Ma­rina Abramovic hold forth. Robert De Niro gives his best per­for­mance for years as a fa­mous ac­tor talk­ing about his artist par­ents.

For all that, this is an­other bi­o­graph­i­cal doc­u­men­tary that fails to es­cape the meat-and-pota­toes PBS style of film-making. It’s worth see­ing in the cin­ema, but it will lose lit­tle on TV.

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