Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews. Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up. Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
Feisty Elle Reid’s pregnant teenage granddaughter, Sage, has an abortion scheduled for late the same day she tells Grandma she needs $630 to pay for it, but Elle’s broke; most of the rest of this story deals with attempts to get the needed cash from Sage’s clueless boyfriend, Elle’s long-ago flame, and finally Sage’s Mom, Judy, in a funny but endearing tale.
A very long day in the life of poet/currently-unemployed academic Elle Reid (Lily Tomlin) begins as we witness the breakup (our narrative is told in chapters, “Endings” being the 1st one) of her current 4-month-romance with considerably-younger Olivia (Judy Greer), whom Elle viciously refers to as a mere “footnote” to her 38-year-connection with Violet, who died 1½ years ago but has never left Elle’s thoughts (with the memory encouraged by a tattoo of her former lover’s name on Elle’s arm). However, the abrupt termination with Olivia (who, I assume, has her own residence because all she does upon leaving is toss her key onto a table, with no mention of retrieving anything from the house—we do see a second toothbrush in the bathroom later, but Elle quickly throws it in the trash) isn’t as easy as it seems as we cut to the next scene of Elle sobbing hysterically in the shower (some of that’s probably still grief over Violet), followed by a calming nostalgic scene as Elle dresses up in her academic robe while looking through a trove of mementos. From there, whatever hopes she had for a more peaceful day are shattered by the unexpected arrival of her troubled teenage granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), who hesitantly explains that she’s pregnant, needs $630, and has an appointment scheduled (abortion’s not specified at this point in the script, but it’s clear that’s what awaits Sage today if she can raise the money) for late that very afternoon (pre-planning on the girl’s part doesn’t seem to be one of her stronger assets, as Grandma bluntly notes to her).
Elle’s no help with the cash, though, because in addition to being jobless she also recently cleaned out her savings in order to rid herself of all debts (we’ll have to assume that Olivia was the final one), then cut up her credit cards to incorporate them into a wind chime (this woman’s clearly never lost her Sixties street cred, at least where advocating feminist principles and condemning the power structure are concerned), so off they travel (in Violet’s old rattletrap of a car [a 1955 Dodge Royal which actually belongs to Tomlin]) in search of the needed money, with their first stop at what Elle remembers as a Free Clinic but it’s now a coffee shop; she decides she could do with a cup but is soon thrown out for disturbing the other customers (all both of them) as she rants about the need for abortion access, gets into a verbal tiff with the shop worker, Chau (John Cho), and generally just keeps exhibiting the foul-mouthed, acerbic attitude that we’ve quickly come to know from her.
With time running out, the only choice left is Sage’s bossy Mom, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), a hard-driven-woman (her office desk sits over a treadmill) who frightens both Grandma and Sage. After the expected exchange of heated words on all sides (Chapter 5, “Kids”), Judy agrees to provide the money, along with more mutual insults and sarcasms, as Grandma barely gets Sage to the clinic in time after the car finally breaks down (they hitchhike with a squabbling couple and their carful of kids), then they must avoid the preaching of an anti-abortionist and her young daughter, although the kid (Meg Crosbie) slugs Elle in response to her counter-arguments. Surprisingly, Judy cancels some appointments in order to show up as well, with the Reid women finally uniting over Sage’s needs, even to the point of no recriminations when Sage finally calls Mom Judy an “asshole.”
Most-essentially-critical is Garner’s (another worthy nomination consideration) take on Sage, though, as we need to empathize with her while acknowledging that she’s still just a child emotionally whose actions (both with Cam and with her mother’s demolished-garage-door) lead to consequences that she can barely fathom in terms of importance rather than inconvenience. All of these actors are up to their requirements, allowing Tomlin to provide an effective whirlwind of central activity without totally dominating the various environments that she invades.
When you put all of this together, you do end up with what could be a multiple-awards-nominee (possibly for Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay [Weitz also] in addition to the acting triumphs noted above). Don’t see Grandma just expecting an R-rated-dialogue-rantfest of Lily Tomlin showcasing her comic chops as a grouchy old woman (although that’s on constant display until intra-family-things finally get resolved at the abortion clinic at the end) because there’s a lot more to it than that, more worthy of your time than is a mere showcase of well-spewed-obscenities.
He’s a musician so she seeks him at the club Phoenix (with the name serving as a double entendre for the content of this film), first mistakenly following a cruel guy with the same name into an alley outside the club where he robs her but later coming upon the right Johnny (now going by Johannes) working as a kitchen busboy. To her heartbroken shame he doesn’t recognize her, but then things take a very strange twist as he sees this woman as resembling closely enough his (presumed) dead wife so he concocts a plan for her to pass herself off as Nelly in order to collect the sizable family inheritance (all of Nelly’s relatives were killed in the war). She agrees, in an effort to be close to him, even though she doesn’t see that much of him while hidden in his dingy basement apartment.
Further, though, there’s the additional major complication that Lene (who knew our couple before the war) tells Nelly that Johnny’s the one who turned her in, seemingly to secure his own release, I guess for harboring a fugitive (hiding her in a countryside hotel for quite a while until she was betrayed)—Johnny’s not Jewish, the situation for most of their friends who, as it turns out, included a couple of Nazis, as Lene explains to Nelly—then divorced her a couple of days after she was taken away (Lene has a copy of that decree as proof), although that further complicates it all for me if he’s on record as having divorced Nelly Lenz I don’t see how he could claim her inheritance unless I missed something (easily possible as I’m scribbling notes while subtitles are still flowing upon the screen) about her taking it all, then giving most of it to him except for an accomplice’s fee.
Phoenix is a powerful film about the nature of self-identity (to exceed what it offers, you’d have to go to my #2 Top of All Time, Persona [Ingmar Bergman, 1966] where the ambiguity of selfhood is on excruciating display by 2 of the world’s all-time-great thespians, Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson), the (exceeded) limits of human relationships, and the wartime brutality that haunts countries and cultures even after the hostilities cease. The question is: Can you flow into the appreciation of what impact this film has to offer when its encounters between husband and wife seem so implausible?
After all, though, if you question cinematic plot premises too harshly you run into a lot of problems in just appreciating films that continue to satisfy over the decades—in Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1943) Isla Lund Lazlo knew that she and her husband, Victor (another seeming-returnee from the dead), had to seek their letters of transit at Rick’s Café Américain but she didn’t know the owner was Rick Blaine? A star athlete and scholar such as Benjamin Braddock can’t find any female in Los Angeles to have casual sex with except the wife of his father’s business partner in The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967)? Fredo Corleone is really dumb enough to lose track of his story on the same night about not previously knowing rival gangster Johnny Ola, thereby giving away his previous betrayal of brother Michael in The Godfather: Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)?
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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.
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