Grandma; A Walk in the Woods; Learning to Drive

If you’ve seen Lily Tomlin in …just about anything—ever, you’ll find her performance is often the best thing, whether it’s Robert Altman’s Nashville or the new Netflix series Grace and Frankie (a well-deserved second season is on its way), or her supporting turn in Paul Weitz’ Admission.

Grandma marks a reunion with Weitz and provides Tomlin with her best leading movie role in some time (I might venture to say since the days of The Late Show).

In Grandma, Tomlin plays Elle, a writer whose longtime partner Violet has passed away. As the film begins, Elle is showing the door to her new younger girlfriend (Judy Greer), after which she is visited by her teenage granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) who informs Grandma that she needs $600 for an abortion later that day. Though the (solely) financial aspect of this might not be a problem to those who have either ready cash or credit cards, Elle has neither, since she has paid down her debts and torn up her cards in a misbegotten attempt to feel unburdened. After some discussion as to whether abortion is really the best option, Elle and Sage go forth on a journey to secure the funds, which involves visiting Sage’s irresponsible lout of a boyfriend (who had promised her some money), Elle’s old flames and current friends–all the while hoping to avoid turning to Sage’s successful, high-maintenance, low-tolerance mother (Marcia Gay Harden).

That this road trip forces Sage, and especially Elle to contend with unresolved issues goes without saying. the pleasures in Grandma can be derived from watching Tomlin’s Elle as she confronts these head on, whether it’s Sage’s thoroughly boorish beau (don’t mess with this Grandma), or an ill-timed encounter with her café-owner friend (Elizabeth Pena) over some first editions, and most poignantly, a visit with a long-ago ex (Sam Elliott). Tomlin’s Elle can be uncompromising and abrasive, but in Tomlin’s expert playing, we see that there’s also a suppressed sense of compassion coupled with a reluctance to let people in. The scene with Elliott is nicely developed, playful at first, but ultimately hard-hitting and delicately enacted by both, as Elle is forced to realize the emotional impact her choices have had on others. While the story arc doesn’t hold a whole lot of surprises—we know where and with whom the story will play out—it’s Tomlin and company (Harden and Elliott are especially good), which make a visit with Grandma worth the trip.

Review of A Walk In The Woods

Robert Redford and Nick Nolte undertake another kind of journey in A Walk in the Woods, an adaptation of Jonathan Bryson’s account of his months-long trek along the Appalachian Trail. Redford had long wanted to make A Walk in the Woods (initially as a vehicle for him and Paul Newman), and Redford’s love of nature as well as his advancing years would seem to augur a film that embraces both natural wonders as well as reflections on mortality. Well, you only have some of the former and a little of the latter, as most of the film is just…a walk in the woods. Redford’s established writer is determined to take a hike (over the not-so-firm objections of loving spouse Emma Thompson—so good that one wishes she was going along), and Nolte, a long-lost friend, is just as determined to join him. There are some low-stake incidents, such as encounters with an obnoxious fellow hiker (Kristen Schaal), a jealous husband, and two grizzly bears, but all of these seem to glide by with little lasting impact. There is also the requisite banter, as well as some (but not much) discussion about aging, happiness, and the choices we make. Mostly however, you have Redford and Nolte, two good actors who certainly complement each other, and also manage to develop an engaging rapport that sustains them throughout the trip. It’s not a profound journey by any means, but with this entertaining if lightweight Walk in the Woods, you are in pretty good company throughout.

Review of Learning to Drive

Patricia Clarkson’s brittle book reviewer is Learning to Drive from instructor Ben Kingsley but the movie is not subtle about the title’s implications, since many of the characters are trying to “take control of the wheel.” Clarkson is still reeling after her spouse (Jack Weber) tells her he’s leaving her for another woman, and driving seems to be the way to go if she wants to see daughter (Grace Gummer) in Vermont. Ben Kingsley’s driving instructor is both a political refugee and a Sikh who is driving a cab (as opposed to teaching at a university) because he doesn’t wish to sacrifice his beliefs. He is also trying to navigate life with a new (to him) bride (Sarita Choudhury)—one who does not share his love of learning—or his knowledge of English for that matter. Kingsley’s wife is afraid of her new country (the U.S. as represented by the borough of Queens), and concerned over her new husband’s seeming lack of time and attention.

As with the previous films reviewed here, the pleasures in Learning to Drive are mainly due to some fine actors doing their best with somewhat predictable material. Sarita Choudhury excels as Kingsley’s new mail bride, especially when she has to cope with a gift that Kingsley (mistakenly) thinks will bring them closer. Kingsley is both stern and sensitive as the instructor who is can successfully blend criticism and encouragement with Ms. Clarkson, and still be at a loss over how to communicate with his wife. Clarkson manages to make a potentially unlikable character understandably human, as someone whose love of words has left her at a loss as to how to deal with people. Thanks to its leading players, Learning to Drive is a quietly amusing, touching entertainment.