Robert Altman gave her good parts three times (in Nashville, Short Cuts and A Prairie Home Companion), but Lily Tomlin, one of the doyennes of American comedy, has had a big-screen career remarkably short of credits.

This low-budget indie, written just for her, gives the septuagenarian something to sink her horsey teeth into and she chews it up with gusto.

She's the title character, Elle Reid, an academic and poet in the autumn of both careers. Life has dealt her some bad hands, as we will learn, and she has responded by settling into a pre-dotage of curdled misanthropy: in the first scene, she's dumping her girlfriend, an ex-student barely half her age, with the kiss-off line that she's a footnote and should leave her key on the coffee table.

Enter Sage (Garner), her teenage granddaughter, who wants Elle's help - well, $630 actually, for an abortion - and can't ask her mum, Elle's daughter Judy (Harden), a brittle workaholic lawyer whose parenting style has earned her the soubriquet "Judge".

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Alas, Elle is skint, but she and Sage pile into Elle's 1955 Dodge Royal (Tomlin's own; she bought it when it was 20) and go on a hunt for the funds, hitting up an old debtor and an ex-husband and trying to sell Elle's first editions of Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer.

The film that follows has ambitions as modest as its running time. It may have the feeling of trying to be too many things at once - odd-couple feminist road movie and lesbian love story with side-order meditations on ageing and mother-child relations - but writer-director Weitz reduces the clutter by dividing the action, which unspools over the course of a day, into discrete chapters.

And Tomlin repays the price of admission with a performance equal parts uber-bitchy (ruining the day for a barista who doesn't like the word "abortion") and wistful. It's not greedy or grandstanding but full of nuance, because she's smart enough to know that the worst curmudgeon always lives more in sorrow than in anger. And it holds up a charming gem of a film.


Cast: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Laverne Cox, Nat Wolff, John Cho, Sam Elliott
Director: Paul Weitz
Running time: 78 mins
Rating: M (drug use, offensive language)
Verdict: The great Lily Tomlin makes a great curmudgeon.