Can two actresses who have spent seven years portraying best friends in a popular TV show succeed at playing completely different characters in a movie together? Perhaps Moving On is too fitting a title for the latest film venture for Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, the octogenarian stars of the recently concluded Netflix series Grace and Frankie. The Paul Weitz-directed dramatic comedy allows them to try on new roles and use their talents to explore the dimensions of people who have grown apart over several years reunited by the death of a mutual friend.
Claire (Fonda) is first seen repeatedly instructing her adult daughter on how to care for her dog while she is out of town, an indication that she needs control but doesn’t always find herself respected by the people around her. When she arrives at the funeral of her friend Joyce, she wastes no time before announcing to her husband Howard (Malcolm McDowell) that she plans to kill him that weekend. Evvie (Lily Tomlin) makes her memorable entrance during Howard’s eulogy, exhibiting a relatively equal if less murderous distaste for the man.
Claire’s explicit threat upon seeing Howard for the first time in years is jarring and comes off that way, a good barometer for a film that’s generally too direct. There are no flashbacks to Claire and Evvie’s college days or their friendship with Joyce, who never even appears alive in the film. The content is all surface level, with no subtext or subtlety. What exactly Howard has done to make Claire hate him isn’t entirely significant since the concept that he is not a good person is firmly established by the time the truth is revealed.
Seeing Fonda and Tomlin together on screen, however, does remain a delight. Tomlin and Weitz last collaborated on 2015’s wonderful Grandma, and Tomlin once again plays a relatively kooky character who doesn’t much care what other people think of her. When Howard tries to deflect after Evvie shares her intimate personal history with his late wife, he notes that she’s funny, to which she responds, “People think I’m being funny, but I’m really just talking.” There’s a reason Tomlin keeps getting roles like this – she can do it effortlessly and still make each character feel fresh. Fonda has the more challenging part, and she approaches it with the right determination and commitment to ensure that Claire seems vindictive with a purpose rather than petty or unduly vengeful.
Moving On gives its main characters the opportunity to have hijinks, like figuring out how to secure the right weapon to kill Howard (lots of shades of 9 to 5 here), first with an ill-fated if surprisingly cordial visit to a gun shop and then with some bacon-related bribery of a grease-deprived neighbor of Evvie’s. Those moments are fun if moderately predictable, and where the film impresses more is in its exploration of Claire’s relationship with her ex-husband Ralph (Richard Roundtree) and the way they interact upon seeing each other for the first time in decades. That’s the more potent commentary spurred by the film’s title, catching up on the people who have become meaningful to them and spending little time trying to figure out why they hadn’t stayed together in a former life.
This film doesn’t feel like a Grace and Frankie reunion, but it also is not a fully fleshed-out concept. There is so much history and so many long-buried memories that Claire and Evvie have that can’t be covered in its brief 85-minute runtime that could have added informative layers to this fleeting snapshot of their friendship. Fonda and Tomlin have parts here that are perfectly suited for them and in which they deliver dependably, but this film, which goes through some shaky tonal and musical shifts as it delves into seriousness, isn’t nearly as strong a showcase as its stars.
This review is from the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.