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Review: Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are once again perfectly matched in ‘Moving On’

Lily Tomlin, lerft, and Jane Fonda in the movie "Moving On."
(Aaron Epstein / Roadside Attractions)
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If “lovely” is not the first word you’d think would be used to describe a movie about attempted murder, then you haven’t seen “Moving On,” an amusing and bittersweet little tale of love, friendship and, yes, retribution.

Jane Fonda, in one of her best, most resonant film performances since she returned to the screen in 2005, stars as Claire, a twice-divorced grandmother and dog lover who travels from Ohio to L.A. for the funeral of her old college roommate, Joyce. (The film was shot largely in Pasadena, Altadena and Burbank.) But Claire has an agenda beyond just honoring the memory of her departed pal: Now that Joyce is gone, Claire wants to kill Joyce’s husband, Howard (Malcolm McDowell), for vengeful reasons that will unfold as we go.

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But her mission is, admittedly, rather harebrained — in contrast to the seemingly circumspect Claire’s general demeanor. All she knows is that she wants to bump off the hostile, remorse-free Howard. How and when she’ll accomplish that will, she hopes, present itself.

To that end, Claire enlists another college friend, Evelyn (Fonda’s “Grace and Frankie,” “80 for Brady” and “9 to 5” co-star, Lily Tomlin), who makes a brash entrance at Joyce’s funeral — and is even more unfiltered at her memorial gathering. Though Evelyn, a former orchestra cellist and Joyce’s college-era lover, hasn’t seen Claire in forever, she’s resourceful, crafty and maybe just bored enough with her current life to jump into Claire’s scheme. And the misadventures follow.

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At times, the more audacious Evelyn proves an unexpected voice of reason. But that doesn’t stop her from accompanying Claire to check out a friendly gun shop or bartering with a fellow resident in her senior-living facility for the pistol he supposedly has stashed away (a transaction that offers a nice, twisty payoff).

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Howard’s potential killing may be the springboard here, but this compact tale is about so much more than that. Writer-director Paul Weitz, a force behind such other fine character dramedies as “About a Boy,” “In Good Company,” “Admission” and the 2015 Tomlin-starrer, “Grandma,” fleshes out his well-observed script with a wistful array of grace notes for both Claire and Evelyn that play out in unfussy and heartfelt ways.

Whether it’s Claire’s tender reunion with her gentle and equitable ex-husband, Ralph (a wonderful Richard Roundtree), Evelyn’s protective kindness for a tween boy (Marcel Nahapetian) exploring gender expression or Evelyn’s wonder at learning from Joyce and Howard’s devoted daughter (Sarah Burns) that Joyce had kept Evelyn’s age-old love letters, the film beautifully touches on aging, individuality, regret and the bracing freedom of no longer giving a fig.

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Fonda and Tomlin, who’ve become a kind of latter-day female version of Matthau and Lemmon, not only enjoyably display their lived-in chemistry but bring expert nuance and pathos to their characters’ many emotional turns — big and small. If that’s no great shock, given the length, breadth and caliber of their careers, it’s still stirring and impressive to behold.

The murder thread picks up again in earnest in the film’s third act and manages to resolve itself in a series of surprising and satisfying if perhaps slightly convenient moves. But by then we’re so invested in Claire and her deep-rooted cause that, whatever happens, we just want to see her happy. Evelyn too.

In the end, “Moving On” emerges as a feel-good movie by way of some feel-bad events, mainly that heinous slice of history between Claire and Howard. It’s a bit of a tightrope act for sure, but the film engagingly shows that, whatever one’s age, if you can find a way to reconcile the past, the future may prove brighter than you ever imagined.

'Moving On'

Rating: R, for language
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Playing: Starts March 17 in general release

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