The shortcomings of ‘Grandma’ as a movie make whatever revelations it may possess sadly unconvincing.
The initial set-up taken on its own, the stage that is set in Grandma, where a teenage girl visits her grandmother to ask for money for an abortion she knows, or believes, that her mother won’t lend her, possesses a swimming pool of potential wisdom and insight. There’s an opportunity for this very small movie to explore things which films, independent or not, very rarely devote themselves to – differences in generational femininity, the shifting social culture of abortion, the more than comparable ability of same-sex couples to successfully raise a family (grandma is gay), and the dreams and sorrows of the elderly – not as they are received by younger eyes, but taken on their own terms from someone living alone, inside of a small house with nothing but a lifetime of experiences to keep them company.
The reason Grandma doesn’t manage to explore these things – or convincingly argue that they are worthwhile topics to anyone who doesn’t already believe so – is thanks to it being one of the most conventionally made and methodically edited movies I have seen in a long while. Typically, if a movie is doing something interesting and new with its narrative, a tried-and-true coverage style won’t do anything to hamper the content: it may not allow the film to feel distinct or open up new moments due to any sort of tailored style, but originality in theme doesn’t always necessitate innovation in storytelling. Grandma as a film, though, is actually so monotonous in its telling and oftentimes so redundant from cut to cut that it achieves a strange and infuriating new level of ultra-standard.
That’s not to say all of the film is dull. Much talk has been made about Lily Tomlin’s performance as the grandmother of the title, and I am sure that she is quite excellent. But I can’t say for certain, because the film wouldn’t let me. At a certain point, I started counting the cuts in the movie: there is not a single scene in which the camera lingers on a character for more than one line of dialogue. If someone must speak, the camera must cut to them, even in the car scenes. And because of the way the dialogue is written – almost entirely in two-person scenes and single lines of dialogue – we never get a rest, never get to watch someone not talk, never get to sink in to anything that isn’t incessant, typically not humorous, chatter amongst characters – which would be fine if they didn’t mostly come off as paper cutouts.
The most obvious example of this is the mother of the tale, played by Marcia Gay Harden, who is (1) dressed in all pink, (2) has a treadmill desk, (3) fires a new assistant every day, (4) always has in a Bluetooth earpiece, (5) is more occupied by work than by her daughter, and (6) whose workplace is treated as the stuff of nightmares. It’s these odd, out of place stereotypes in a movie which should be built from the ground up to transcend them – mixed with a filmmaking style that seems committed to do nothing but hammer in, in one single swing after another after another after another, the story’s existence – that gives us a film which feels far more like a factory piece and a conveyor-belt product than this movie ever should. There’s even – what might be pretentious in other films but here is simply unnecessary and bland – lowercase title cards that come up throughout the film (i.e. “1. endings”). These feel as if they’re insisting originality and, more obnoxiously, quirkiness, but only make the film feel even more like it was edited by a high-schooler.
It’s possible that the characters are all written honestly, and painfully, that Lily Tomlin has given us the most nuanced performance of the year, that the title cards themselves were intended to make a statement about those themes I mentioned earlier. There may be a staggeringly original film here, and an importantly original story. But an artist can’t ignore his medium, and whatever originality and nuance that may exist in this script is rendered almost completely two-dimensional by a director who doesn’t seem to trust his material or his actors. Throughout the movie, I kept thinking that this must be a first feature. But it isn’t – Paul Wietz has directed About a Boy, American Pie, In Good Company, and more recently Admission and episodes of Mozart in the Jungle. Maybe one of the most disappointing things, reading that list, is that Grandma is also consistently not funny. That these issues are related, I have no doubt.