Culture

Planned Grandparenthood

Lily Tomlin gets political and cynical in Grandma.

Lily Tomlin plays a politically correct construct named Elle Reid in Grandma — she’s an academic, a poet, and a lesbian assisting her granddaughter (Julia Garner), who is “in trouble” as they used to say about unwed pregnancies. Elle asks, “Where can you get a reasonably priced abortion these days?” That line makes you expect the worst as the movie, written and directed by Paul Weitz, puts Elle on a road trip that takes in different, comic views of the controversy.               

Grandma’s PowerPoint approach is almost even-handed. Weitz’s feminist perspective (showing several generations of female sexual and romantic experience — gay, straight, and multiracial) falls just short of proselytizing. This kind of Hollywood open-mindedness isn’t always trustworthy, but Tomlin’s charm eases what could have been an obnoxious, sanctimonious characterization. Her Elle is cranky (still grieving for her dead lover, she tells a new suitor: “You’re a footnote”) and picks fights everywhere, even when, out of desperation, she visits her ex-husband from her bisexual past. The stalwart, almost exaggeratedly virile Sam Elliott is a perfect foil; his Karl is grandfather to eleven offspring and represents fecund opposition to Elle’s feminist prerogative.

Tomlin and Elliott’s interaction is almost better than a conservative argument might be; they put the abortion crisis in a context of recognizable, personal dispute. The scene depicts the moral and emotional needs of each of them. “You’re a patriarch,” she smirks. “I’m Biblical,” he answers.

When Elle tells her grandchild, “If you don’t cry about this, what the hell are you gonna cry about?” it’s the film’s least doctrinaire line. Yet it doesn’t convey the utter sorrow inherent in abortion that welled up in last year’s Obvious Child, Gillian Robespierre’s surprising, deeply felt post-feminist rom-com. Weitz, through Elle, is bemused at contemporary moral/political folly. (In the second-best scene, a sweet-faced child greets Elle with a right hook.) And Elle’s preoccupied businesswoman daughter (Marcia Gay Harden) works at a treadmill desk, which Elle calls “a redundancy” — though she should have called it an oxymoron.

Grandma’s progressivism poses as a redundancy, but it’s really an oxymoron, too. Weitz, Tomlin, and Elliott proselytize for compassion. For them to even contemplate abortion, their Hollywood humanism has to be “grandmothered in.”

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Remember Ingmar Bergman’s Persona? Alex Ross Perry doesn’t. His new film, Queen of Earth, merely replicates the outline of Bergman’s 1967 film, which examined two women’s psyches. Although Perry’s tale is full of similar neurotic tension, it falls far short of the cinematic and psychological breakthrough that made Persona great and makes it still exciting.

Perry’s protagonists are two trust-fund Millennials, aspiring artist Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) and her equally well-to-do BFF Virginia (Katherine Waterston), who are less compelling than Bergman’s characters, a stage actress (Liv Ullmann) and her nurse (Bibi Andersson). In Perry’s movie, the symbiosis of the two women’s bland identities leads to competitive petulance: free-floating bickering, sobbing, recrimination, and deceit. The pattern is set in the first shot of Catherine’s anguished, tear-stained scowl during a romantic break-up: Perry contrasts her madness with her ex’s maddening calm. Double irritation is his method, but it yields no insight about anything other than solipsism, Perry’s usual spoiled-brat theme.

Catherine’s grimace is also a reflection of the social group (New York’s Williamsburg hipsters) Perry coddles — a coterie stubbornly set in its privilege and exclusivity: typically white, petit bourgeois, and self-absorbed. Although Perry pretends cinematic examination, a classic model like Persona has less effect on his artistic practice than does his determination to pursue elitist cachet. Bergman’s genius — at the high point of the European art-film era — was to objectify women while also empathizing with his own psychological stress. Perry’s objectification — at the low point of contemporary film culture — stays superficial and self-indulgent.

Perry’s special conceit is hipster nihilism expressed in no particular argot, just his own pseudo-literary verbiage

Queen of Earth (a tellingly egotistical title) uses the codes of contemporary narcissism. Catherine and Virginia are your average sexually active, financially comfortable young-adult women who exploit each other, their own bodies, and men, and then suffer various levels of frustration and exasperation. When Catherine and Virginia say, “We’ll both trade places, see how one feels then,” they evoke that daring alter-ego juncture in Persona when Bergman’s film almost literally split in two; yet Perry tells us nothing about Catherine and Virginia, who are essentially the same pampered type.

#related#In a nine-minute duologue they complement each other’s agony. (“I’m in this self-perpetuating cycle of defeat.” “It’s one of the worst tendencies of human nature.”) Perry’s special conceit is hipster nihilism expressed in no particular argot, just his own pseudo-literary verbiage: Catherine regrets “this textile representation” of her ex’s feelings (though shouldn’t she say “tactile”?). It’s the language of self-involvement. Bergman isolated his characters on an island and, through references to politics, art, sexuality, memory, and psychology, contemplated the idea of the female and (through Ullmann and Andersson’s great collaboration) of the human. Perry’s histrionic yet inexpressive cast is led by Moss, who was the young frump of TV’s Mad Men and here is both unprepossessing and incapable of suggesting sad-sack Catherine’s inner life.

Not showing how their characters got to be the way they are is a too-frequent failing of contemporary filmmakers, who over-concentrate on plot concept. Perry only wants to justify the neuroses of his Millennial clique. This basic lack of interest in character development has a political dimension. It probably also reflects a generation’s lack of spiritual and social curiosity. That’s what separates Perry’s vulgar imagery, with its grueling close-ups and reality-TV swish-pans, from Bergman’s mastery. It makes Perry one of this era’s cinematic pygmies — like the mumblecore kids and the American Eccentric adults who are less interested in self-examination than self-display. Queen of Earth flaunts the narcissism of a peer group — and a film careerist — but with little imagination and no self-examination.

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Now it can be told: Peter Bogdanovich’s She’s Funny That Way (which I reviewed last week) ends with an unsettling coup: The hooker-turned-actress heroine runs off with a famous film director — Quentin Tarantino. QT’s cameo sullies Bogdanovich’s sex farce by invoking the immoral desperation of contemporary film culture. QT gives the movie a sour meaning that contradicts Bogdanovich’s humanism. Robert Altman did this better at the end of The Player, when Bruce Willis runs off with Julia Roberts (a comment on Nineties box-office power couples and Hollywood venality). The Player’s cynicism made it the most fearlessly honest Hollywood satire ever. If Bogdanovich meant to depict Hollywood corruption, his film turns cynical without the same cleansing, cathartic effect, an Alex Ross Perry ploy.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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