Can you imagine anything more delightful than Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin together in a movie starring Richard Roundtree and Malcolm McDowell… in 1972? That was the year Fonda won an Oscar for “Klute” and daffy “Laugh-In” star Tomlin released her first comedy album. The two men rode high with “Shaft” and “A Clockwork Orange” respectively. Think what an ensemble movie that played out each of their strengths would have accomplished 50 years ago.
That is of course wishful thinking. You can’t go back, and you can’t redo things, 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 feisty sitcom with a #MeToo twist in which two estranged friends reunite to settle a decades-old score.
Weitz started his career with “American Pie” – which introduced the word “MILF” into the English language – and has, in fact, since built a career telling decent, throwaway stories about immature adulthood (“About a Boy”, “Admission” , “Being Flynn”). His one really great movie was “Grandma,” which he wrote for Tomlin – a politically charged indie about a teenage girl who turns to her lesbian grandmother to help fund an abortion. This latest project is clearly an excuse for Weitz to work with her again; it was Tomlin’s idea to involve Fonda.
Today, it’s not such a surprise to see the two female actors together. Fonda and Tomlin and seven seasons in “Grace and Frankie,” and they have such good comedic chemistry that their first feature film collaboration is more of a comfort than a surprise: a “grumpy old wives” 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 behave, and they don’t waste much time on that.
“I’m going to kill you,” Claire threatens the dead woman’s husband, Howard (McDowell), as soon as she walks through the door. A few minutes later, Evelyn appears drunk and makes an even bigger entrance, interrupting Howard’s eulogy. Then, the next day, she drops a bomb at the monument and announces that the beloved wife and mother they just buried was her lover.
Claire really does intend to kill Howard – for reasons far more difficult than a Paul Weitz film would suggest – and the next 70 minutes are alternately spent on that plan (it’s harder than Second Amendment proponents might want to buy a murder weapon). in the state of California) and dealing with unfinished business, such as fixing things up with ex-husband Ralph (Roundtree), whom she divorced without explanation all those years ago.
Tomlin is here mainly as emotional support and comedic relief: to ask the main character if she really wants to kill someone and to support her decision, whatever that may be. That was essentially Tomlin’s role in “Grandma”, without making any moral equivalence 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 mindset that extends to the visiting boy she meets in the hallways of her retirement home, encouraging this effeminate child’s desire to dress up and tell him how beautiful he is.
Tomlin is great in this mode. The script is as bland as the “cardboard” they serve in her canteen, but she manages to inject it with vinegar and attitude, while embracing the realities of aging. Getting older doesn’t mean giving up, Evelyn recalls; it means finding a new way to laugh off life’s litany of disappointments. Evelyn may roll her eyes and scold Claire — like “cuckoo” and “crazy” — but she was the only person who told Claire about what had happened to Howard.
The attack destabilized Claire’s life, destroyed her marriage and went unreported for all these years. That’s a great thing to play — not the borderline slapstick business 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 it had to “move on” without justice. Here it is Claire’s word against Howard’s, although no one in the audience will have a hard time discerning the truth.
Fonda is not exaggerating. This isn’t an Oscar movie, and she has no interest in outdoing Jodie Foster’s big Charles Bronson spin in “The Brave One.” The only question is what she does about it. Laughter can be as cathartic as violence. You’ll never believe what weapon Claire ends up with. If that doesn’t work, she’s willing to suffocate him with a pillow or hit him with a car. Her desperation is starting to look pathetic, and that’s kind of the point: It’s not so much about getting even acknowledging the deep, lasting damage Howard has done to her life.
At that point, you might wish that 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 pretty much labels them — and celebrates them. We’ve been spoiled for the past decade discovering what Fonda and Tomlin can do together. Why didn’t Hollywood see the potential of this combination half a century earlier?