Moving On review: Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda’s irreverent reunion

Can you imagine anything more adorable than Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in a film starring Richard Roundtree and Malcolm McDowell…in 1972? That was the year Fonda won an Oscar for Klute and Tomlin, the star of Laugh-In, released her first comedy album. The two men were very popular with “Shaft” and “A Clockwork Orange”. Imagine what an ensemble film playing to its full potential could have produced 50 years ago.

That is of course wishful thinking. You can’t go back and you can’t do things again, but it’s never too late to move on. At least, that’s the message writer-director Paul Weitz is peddling in Moving On, a cheeky feature-length sitcom with a #MeToo twist about two estranged friends reuniting to settle a decades-old score.

Weitz started his career with “American Pie” – which introduced the word “MILF” into the English language – and has since made a basically career telling decent throwaway stories about stunted maturity (“About a Boy”, “Admission”, “Being Flynn”). His only truly great film was Grandma, which he wrote for Tomlin, a politically charged indie about a young girl who turns to her lesbian grandmother to help fund an abortion. This latest project is obviously an excuse for Weitz to work with her again; it was Tomlin’s idea to include Fonda.

Nowadays, it’s not a big surprise to see the two actresses together. Fonda and Tomlin and seven seasons in Grace and Frankie, and they have such good comedic chemistry that their first collaboration together is more of a comfort than a surprise: a grumpy old broads comedy in the tradition of Matthau and Lemmon , where they play Claire (Fonda) and Evelyn (Tomlin), two college roommates who are reunited for a friend’s funeral. We expect them to act and they don’t waste much time doing it.

“I’m going to kill you,” Claire threatens the dead woman’s husband, Howard (McDowell), the moment she walks in the door. A few minutes later, Evelyn shows up drunk and makes an even bigger entrance, interrupting Howard’s eulogy. Then, the next day, she drops a bombshell at the memorial, announcing that the beloved woman and mother they just buried was her lover.

Claire genuinely intends to kill Howard — for reasons far harder than a Paul Weitz film would suggest — and the next 70 or so minutes are spent alternating between those plans (it’s harder than Second Amendment advocates might realize like buying a murder weapon in the state of California) and dealing with unfinished business like making things right with ex-husband Ralph (Roundtree), whom she divorced with no explanation all those years ago.

Tomlin is here primarily as emotional support and comedic relief: to ask the main character if she really wants to murder someone, and to support her decision, whatever that might be. That was essentially Tomlin’s role in Grandma, too, without establishing any moral equivalences between abortion and manslaughter. She’s a modern-minded lesbian who does what she wants and supports the right of others to do the same – a mentality that extends to and effeminate the visiting boy she meets in the hallways of her retirement home Child encouraged to dress up and play tell him how beautiful he is.

Tomlin is great in this mode. The script is as boring as the “cardboard box” they serve up in their retirement home cafeteria, but she manages to inject it with vinegar and attitude while embracing the reality of aging. Getting older doesn’t mean giving up, Evelyn reminds; it means finding a fresh way to laugh at life’s litany of disappointments. Evelyn might roll her eyes and call Claire names — like “cuckoo” and “crazy” — but she was the only person Claire told what happened to Howard.

The attack destabilized Claire’s life, destroyed her marriage and went unreported for years. That’s a damn good thing — not the borderline slapstick deal of buying a gun and pointing it at a man who’s lived with a different memory of the same incident for decades, but the trauma shared by so many women who share it had to “move on” without justice. Claire’s word is against Howard’s here, although no one in the audience will have trouble discerning the truth.

Fonda doesn’t overdo it. This isn’t an Oscar film, and she has no interest in outdoing Jodie Foster’s great Charles Bronson performance in The Brave One. It’s just a question of what she does about it. Laughter can be just as cathartic as violence. You’ll never believe the weapon Claire shows up with. If that fails, she’s willing to smother him with a pillow or run him over with a car. Her desperation begins to look pathetic, and that’s the point: it’s not about getting revenge, it’s about recognizing the deep, lasting damage Howard has done to her life.

At this point, you might wish someone with a darker sense of humor like Danny DeVito (“Throw Momma From the Train”) was behind the camera. To his credit, Weitz sees the beauty and enduring sex appeal of these two women — “Grand-MILFs,” the film almost calls them — and celebrates them. We’ve been spoiled for the last ten years as we discovered what Fonda and Tomlin can achieve together. Why didn’t Hollywood see the potential of this pairing half a century earlier? Moving On review: Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda’s irreverent reunion

Charles Jones

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