After helming the 2015 dramedy, “Grandma,” starring Lily Tomlin, writer-director Paul Weitz casts her in “Moving On,” a revenge comedy that may be too dark for its own good. The reason for vengeance is withheld for much of the film, though it’s easy to predict what it is. Once the revelation comes to light, it stops everything cold. The film’s saving grace may be that the script avoids descending into trauma porn.
Weitz brings out the acerbic best in Tomlin — her retired cellist is curmudgeonly without a hint of cuteness. Sharp wit and a tart delivery are well-honed tools in her arsenal. Costar Jane Fonda makes a great sparring partner, the Jack Lemmon to Tomlin’s Walter Matthau. Their easy rapport, perfected by decades of working together, helps “Moving On” navigate its bumpy shifts in tone.
Both actors make memorable entrances at the funeral for their mutual college friend, Joyce. Claire (Fonda) walks up to Joyce’s husband, Howard (Malcolm McDowell), and says, “Now that she’s gone, now that it can’t hurt her, I am going to kill you.” She’s serious. When Howard delivers his eulogy, Weitz cuts between him and Claire, implying that they may have been romantically involved. “I have no regrets,” Howard says, as her face tenses up.
Evelyn (Tomlin) interrupts this eulogy, entering behind Howard and commenting sarcastically on the pictures of Joyce on either side of the stage. As she takes her seat, she winks at Claire, letting us know her faux pas was no accident. She and Claire were also college friends. At the wake, Evelyn drops the bombshell that she and Joyce were lesbian lovers before Howard’s marriage.
When Claire tells Evelyn of her plan to murder Howard, Evelyn is not surprised at the confession. But she believes it’s all talk. Once she realizes Claire is unwavering in her plan, she decides to help out. This decision leads to some funny scenarios, including using bacon as a bartering tool and a knife that keeps getting wielded for everything but the murderous intent of the person holding it.
“Moving On” is something of a meditation on the past and how it bubbles up in the present. Sometimes, we have trouble moving on, whether it’s due to unfinished business that will never be resolved or a psyche-scarring event. Evelyn is a widow who misses her late wife; Claire is a divorcee whose marriage ended for reasons her ex-husband, Ralph (Richard Roundtree), never understood.
Ralph re-enters Claire’s life at the funeral, and the two briefly reflect on their former life together. Roundtree gives a lovely and sensitive performance, plus his gray beard visually complements Fonda’s equally gray hair. These two silver foxes generate massive amounts of sexy, romantic chemistry. Their scenes have a sweet, comic edge tinged with a haunted sense of loss.
Even if it is 50 years late, the mere notion that Shaft and Barbarella might get bizzy onscreen should send tingles up your spine. Kudos to the casting director for giving us genre fans a coupling we wish had occurred in the youthful heyday of these actors.
Despite McDowell’s best efforts to be unrepentant and deserving of whatever horrible fate may befall him, the one-note depiction of Howard is the movie’s weak link. His interactions with daughter Allie (Sarah Burns) flesh him out slightly, but the performance sinks into mustache-twirling villain territory.
Howard’s confrontation with Claire is presented with all the gravitas the situation deserves, and Fonda gives a tour-de-force airing of her grievances, but the details are so upsetting that it temporarily throws the film off its comedic axis. However, Weitz makes the right decision by letting the drama unfold without the heavy-handed manipulation filmmakers usually employ for such scenes.
As he did in movies like “About a Boy,” Weitz folds in social commentary with his humor. A subplot between Evelyn and James (Marcel Nahapetian), a prepubescent kid visiting grandparents in Evelyn’s senior living complex, interrogates gender roles. “Moving On” also hints at the societal prejudice surrounding homosexual relationships five decades ago.
The interplay between Tomlin and Fonda is enough to keep us watching, and “Moving On” has a refreshingly brisk pace and runtime (it’s 85 minutes long). It’s a worthwhile alternative to the comic-book movie opening this week, provided you’re open to a dark comedy that teeters precariously on the edge of the abyss.
Written and directed by Paul Weitz. Starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Richard Roundtree, Malcolm McDowell, Sarah Burns, Marcel Nahapetian. 85 minutes. At AMC Boston Common and suburbs. R (language, graphic descriptions of violence)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.