Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda make for great scene partners. This we’ve known for decades. Even if you’d somehow missed their crackling chemistry in the 1980 comedy 9 to 5, Netflix’s Grace And Frankie is a great primer on how much these two legendary actresses love working together. With Moving On, coming shortly after the release of 80 For Brady, where they starred alongside Sally Field and Rita Moreno, it’s clear the two show no signs of stopping their comedic pas de deux. Only, this Paul Weitz project may be a reminder that good chemistry and stellar leading ladies can only get you so far.
Claire (Fonda) and Evelyn (Tomlin) have just lost their treasured best friend, Joyce. When they meet at her funeral, Clair reveals the one reason she’s come all the way from Ohio to California: she’s intent on killing Joyce’s widower, Howard (Malcolm McDowell). Upping the ante, Claire makes this known to her victim: “Now that it can’t hurt her, I’m going to kill you.” And while Evelyn is initially amused if unconvinced, she eventually agrees to help Claire out, for reasons that become clearer the more we learn about her own relationship with Joyce.
The premise suggests Weitz’s latest pairing with Tomlin (they last worked together in the delightful 2015 film, Grandma) is a black comedy, one interested in exploring the lengths people will go to redress and address the trauma they’ve endured (often in secret) for decades. After all, conversations between Claire and Evelyn suggest that the driving reason why Claire would buy a gun to shoot a widower has to do with a scarring incident that she has yet to properly grapple with: “I told you to go to the police,” Evelyn reminds her friend, only to be met with that age-old chestnut: “They never would have believed me.” One need not hear more to gather what happened between Claire and Howard all those years ago, so the film saves its most jaw-dropping reveal for Evelyn. And that is best left unspoiled—mostly because Tomlin’s emotionally grizzled performance deserves to be experienced in full.
That’s unsurprising given that Moving On’s most touching scenes come courtesy of its central comedic duo showing why they have amassed shelves worth of award statuettes over the decades. Such moments, alas, are few and far between, which speaks to the script’s uneven tone. For every affecting scene where Fonda captures what it felt like for Claire to keep a painful secret for years, there’s another that feels written like an SNL sketch (“Two Old Ladies Try To Buy a Gun”).
Moving On’s tonal whiplash is what keeps it from handily taking on the serious and complex issues it sketches for its characters. Especially as it tries to argue that maybe the more things change, the more they stay the same. Weitz (2002’s About A Boy) excels at the sweet-natured exchanges between Claire and Evelyn (and even between Claire and her ex-husband) but falters when he corners his characters into ethically murky territory that gets undercut by slapstick comedy, as if the film needed to constantly reassure its audience that, no, women like Claire and Evelyn couldn’t actually go through with such a harebrained scheme. Nor should they.
The project as a whole can be best enjoyed as yet another chance to visit with these two treasured friends. And that may well be enough. Tomlin and Fonda are in fine form here, even if true to their star personas, they are again playing variations of their on-screen characters. Where Claire is slightly wound up (she frets over leaving her dog with her daughter), Evelyn careens through life with a carefree attitude that allows her dry-witted delivery to often be mistaken for candor. “People think I’m being funny,” she tells Howard, “but I’m just really talking.” To be fair, when it’s Lily Tomlin who’s just “talking,” you can’t help but laugh. Her entrance in the film is enough to make Moving On worth watching.
Ultimately, though, for all the dark humor its plot gestures towards, Moving On is quite a toothless endeavor. Its title is the tell. Murder may be on Claire’s mind but atonement and forgiveness are more of what Weitz has in store for these two old friends. You almost wish Weitz would let himself go to darker places and not sand down the edges of his characters. Instead, we’re left with the pat earnestness of a film whose message boils down to letting the past stay buried and, yes, “moving on” with one’s life.
(Moving On premieres in theaters on March 17)