The on-screen pairing of Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin is not exactly a novelty at the moment. Seven seasons of "Grace and Frankie" and the movie "80 for Brady" has, perhaps, spoiled us a little lately. And, unfortunately, second-act movies with Hollywood legends have a very hit or miss track record (sorry "Queen Bees" and "Poms").
But don't let either of those facts dissuade you from trying out " Moving On," which was written and directed by Paul Weitz ("Grandma," "About a Boy") and opens in theaters this weekend. This is one of those rare films that balances a darkly comedic conceit with authentic, emotional resonance, allowing Fonda, Tomlin and co-stars Malcolm McDowell and Richard Roundtree to actually act rather than be demeaned by cheap caricatures of senior citizens.
It begins with a funeral. We never meet the deceased, but it brings the main characters back together again for the first time in a long time. Fonda is Claire, a devoted dog mom and grandmother to uninterested teens, who travels from Ohio to California to purportedly say goodbye to her college friend. But she has something else cooking. When she arrives and greets the new widower (McDowell), she doesn't offer sympathies, but instead says, "Howard, I'm going to kill you. I'm going to do it this weekend."
Something happened many years ago with Howard and Claire, while his wife was out of town. It's not explicitly spelled out until an emotional scene near the end, but you know what it is long before then. She only ever told Evvie (Tomlin). The police, she knew, would have just wondered why she was alone with her best friend's husband in his house. And she knew that telling her friend would have ruined her marriage and possibly her life. So, she did nothing.
Tomlin, as ever, spins gold out of every line — whether it's cheesy, throwaway or well-written (and this pic has them all). Her entrance, more memorable, involves stumbling into the chapel, directly onto the stage where Howard is delivering a eulogy for his wife of 51 years.
"Everyone, this is Evelyn. Evelyn was Joyce's college roommate, believe it or not," he says.
"Why wouldn't they believe it," Tomlin deadpans.
Everyone is lying to themselves and each other a little bit and the death of someone they were close to has given way to ancient secrets and truths bubbling up to the surface. Evvie has her own confession to make, but maybe one that's better saved for her to reveal. Regardless of what it is, everyone's suppressed and repressed trauma is coming back with a vengeance.
There is a natural queasiness to any film that tries to mine laughs out of revenge murders but "Moving On" handles this better than many. It's never too arch or silly and it is, ultimately, about an event that effectively ruined Claire's life. Roundtree (a lovely presence) plays her ex-husband Ralph – the incident brought down their marriage, too.
Also, and perhaps this is a flaw, but you never really believe that Claire is going to do it even when she's kind of doing it (there are several attempts). McDowell is great as this grouchy, unrepentant jerk who has deluded himself into thinking that none of these things that either Evelyn or Claire is telling him could possibly have any truth to them. It would be easy to play Howard as simply evil, but McDowell keeps his feet on the ground and allows for some humanity, in spite of everything.
"Moving On" is certainly not perfect, but it's sincerely trying to be something more than your standard octogenarian farce. You might even be surprised by your own emotional investment in this rather trim film.
Hopefully performances like these will remind screenwriters, directors and those who make the decision about what gets made to give our living legends good roles while we still have them. The actors are still game, and hopefully audiences are too.
"Moving On," a Roadside Attractions release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for "language." Running time: 85 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Lindsey Bahr is an AP film writer