As fearless, cantankerous poet Elle Reid, Lily Tomlin explains to her teenage granddaughter Sage (the luminous Julia Garner) why she sliced up her credit cards and turned the pieces into wind chimes: "I'm transmogrifying my life into art," Elle quips, airily.
Tomlin's casualness makes the moment classic. She has a genius for embodying tough individuals incisively, without fuss or sentimentality.
For the record, 2:15 p.m. Aug. 21, 2015: An earlier version of this post misstated actress Judy Greer's first name as Julie.
The chance to see Tomlin in a starring role is the prime attraction of "Grandma," a dizzyingly uneven comedy-drama written and directed by Paul Weitz ("About a Boy," "In Good Company"). For too long this film renders a portrait of a feminist artist in clown paint, though Tomlin hangs in with a veracious, multidimensional performance.
"Grandma" pivots on Sage's search for $600 to fund an abortion. She knocks on Elle's door at 9 a.m., hoping she can borrow the money and avoid coming clean with her forbidding mother (Marcia Gay Harden). Sage's 5:45 p.m. appointment at an outpatient clinic provides some ticking-clock suspense, and Elle's lack of cash sets up a road trip that doubles as an obstacle course in a 1955 Dodge Royal — the car that belonged to Elle's longtime lover, Violet, who died a year and a half ago.
Early on, the action feels overcalculated and under-felt. During Elle's acid breakup with her younger lover Olivia (Judy Greer), Elle says that their four-month affair was "a footnote" compared with her 38-year relationship with Violet.
Such vignettes pigeonhole Elle as a lethal putdown artist. It may be fun to see Elle level Sage's feckless ex-boyfriend (Nat Wolff), who represents everything that went wrong with the sexual revolution. But the laughs are cheap. He and other characters pop up and go down like figures in a midway shooting gallery, easy targets for Elle's righteous sarcasm. They include a brittle coffee-shop owner (John Cho) who caters to "Ozzie and Harriet" clientele on the former site of a women's free health center, and a no-nonsense lesbian café owner (the late Elizabeth Peña) who bristles at paying Elle exorbitant prices for worn first editions of feminist classics.
The film U-turns halfway through when Elle visits a much-married grandparent named Karl (Sam Elliott), who glints with curiosity and wit and has a bloodhound's nose for truth. Their history emerges in a mini-marvel of emotional compression. Irreverent humor about Karl's patriarchal status — "I'm biblical," he proclaims, in Elliott's deep, dry, crackling tones — gives way to an avalanche of secrets and lies.
Elliott imbues Karl with slyness and urgency. He's initially disarming, then heartbreaking as he discovers why Elle needs the money. Tomlin proves how much stronger a stringent heroine can be when forced to face her existential stumbles. In this duet of equals, they explore the confusion that surrounds an unbalanced marriage, an ill-planned abortion and the emergence of sexual identity. That scene provokes arguments that can't be resolved with a wisecrack.
Elle, who lived before Roe vs. Wade, ponders Sage's choices — and her own — in an abortion clinic. Tomlin is marvelous as a rueful self-awareness seeps into her character's angry eyes. Her granddaughter's neediness forges a rapprochement between Tomlin's character and Sage's mother (Harden is first rate), and the quest to help Sage becomes a journey of self-discovery.
This fierce poet ultimately embodies Wordsworth's definition of their craft: "Emotion recollected in tranquillity." Weitz's film moves from clunky domestic dramedy to genuine feminist odyssey.
MPAA rating: R, for language, drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes