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‘Grandma’ another great role for Lily Tomlin

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Lily Tomlin and writer-director Paul Weitz work together on “Grandma.” (Courtesy Glen Wilson/Sony Pictures Classics)

After directing Lily Tomlin in the film “Admission,” Paul Weitz decided to write the movie “Grandma.”

“She had so much more to offer than I was able to take advantage of in ‘Admission,’” says Weitz, describing her scene-stealing role as Tina Fey’s character’s acerbic mother. He adds, “Lily’s utterly in the moment, and was more up to date on current events than I was.”

Recently in San Francisco with Tomlin to promote “Grandma,” a Sundance Film Festival crowd-pleaser opening in theaters Friday, Weitz adds, “I heard Lily’s voice in my head” when he came up wth the dramedy’s main character, Elle – someone way more punk-rock and edgy than her teen granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), with whom she embarks on an intense, one-day adventure.

Tomlin, who knew the part was created with her in mind, says, “Luckily, it was great.”

She didn’t find the material too challenging, either: “She’s a lot like me,” says Tomlin, adding that she’s not a poet like Elle is, but would like to be. She calls the part “more spare, more real, more at the heart” than many of the seemingly countless roles she’s played throughout her more than five-decade career (perhaps with the exception of her 1975 film debut in Robert Altman’s “Nashville”).

Weitz, who sees Elle as “fiery as hell, someone whose own worst enemy is herself,” says Tomlin’s comedic brilliance and timing, and how she’s accurately insightful about how silly and awful humans can be, are the crux of the film.

“The movie lives or dies with casting,” Weitz says, adding that “Grandma’s” emotional resonance results from the uniformily excellent acting by Garner, Marcia Gay Harden and Sam Elliott as well as Tomlin.

Having secured financing for the independent film relatively easily, Weitz, whose credits include “American Pie” and “About a Boy,” says his main concern was that Tomlin, and her wife Jane Wagner, were happy with it.

Not wanting to sound too grandiose, Tomlin calls “Grandma” an “important movie.”

It also was a nice surprise. She says, “I don’t really look forward to things. I’m at an age where I think I’m not going to change the world too radically, so I take things as they come.”

Earning accolades for “Grandma” and Kennedy Center honors in 2014, she says, “It turned out to be a pretty lovely year. When you let go, it all comes to you.”

Starring: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Sam Elliott
Written and directed by: Paul Weitz
Rated R
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

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