Paul Weitz’s “Moving On” boasts a legendary ensemble that includes Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Malcolm McDowell and Richard Roundtree. It’s always possible for such an illustrious cast to simultaneously elicit excitement and dread, though. Just ask anyone who has endured “Queen Bees,” “Poms,” “Book Club,” “Last Vegas” or “Space Cowboys.”
Good news: “Moving On” doesn’t just aim for warm and pleasant. The film is wickedly droll and shockingly riveting – the operative word being “shockingly.” The element of surprise abounds and is more integral to the plot here than in, say, “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.” The less you know, the better because the film defies expectations in the best way possible. With that said, and somewhat heedless of our own advice, this review regrettably must proceed to tell you more. But we won’t spoil anything beyond what’s in the programming notes of the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film received its world premiere.
Claire (Fonda) and Evvie (Tomlin) reconnect at the funeral of Joyce, their college roommate and bestie some 60 years past. Claire has an ulterior motive for attending; she has a score to settle with Howard (McDowell), Joyce’s widower. Mere moments after arriving at the service, she whispers in Howard’s ear that she’s going to kill him. With Claire’s benign veneer, it’s easy to mistake her threat semantically; but she’s apparently deadly serious. When she reveals her plan, Evvie decides to be her accomplice even knowing well Claire’s history of never following through with anything she sets out to do. Needless to say, misadventures ensue for this pair of inept avengers.
While Claire is obviously the protagonist, Evvie appears the more interesting character. A former orchestra cellist, Evvie for some reason pretends to still be playing in an ensemble. She claims to have kept her cute little house when in reality she resides in senior housing. She befriends James (Marcel Nahapetian), a neighbor’s grandson and encourages him when he exhibits a predilection for women’s jewelry. She takes buses everywhere. Too bad these rich expositions don’t necessarily add up to profound revelations for this character.
As mentioned, there is a subgenre of films specifically catering to AARP membership and designated for senior home group outings. Most of them are quite patronizing to say the least, setting the bar very low for what passes for entertainment. The majority are about characters doing things out of boredom rather than with purpose. “Moving On” feels different, because it isn’t fixated on rigid ideas of what life must be like for older folk and how they can partake in frivolous high jinks and fulfill themselves within those parameters. Reminiscent of the Oscar-nominated Chilean documentary “The Mole Agent,” “Moving On” is a caper of levity and intrigue, filled with colorful characters who just happen to be long in the tooth.
Apart from the creative partnership with his brother, Chris, with whom he co-directed “American Pie,” “Down to Earth” and “About a Boy,” Weitz’s work hasn’t been especially impactful. But his writing and direction here do leave a much stronger impression. Black comedy can be tricky tonally; if not absolutely on target, the jokes won’t land. The dynamic between Claire and Howard is comparable to that between Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, in the sense that Claire’s many murder plots invariably get foiled. It’s wild that these assassination attempts often elicited riotous laughter from the premiere audience, even if sometimes one might well check oneself for cackling at such macabre stuff.
The film also involves some difficult conversations that are no laughing matter and which require sensitivity and dexterity. Likewise, these scenes have the potential to turn disastrous if not treated with the appropriate regard and gravity. Weitz handles these pivotal moments deftly, and Fonda and McDowell deliver shattering confrontations.
The cast is uniformly enchanting. Juicy roles like these probably don’t come along often for these screen legends anymore, and they still disappear into these charming and complex characters so effortlessly.
Radiant as ever, Fonda is probably the last person one would suspect of being a killer. The success of this pitch-black comedy hinges on her convincingly conveying a quiet anguish and bloodthirst underneath the genteel façade, and she captivates with Claire’s every move, however poorly thought out and haphazardly executed. Tomlin’s signature deadpan delivery never ceases to amuse, and she delivers Weitz’s lines with such authenticity that it’s almost if she had written them herself. Roundtree is magnetic as Claire’s ex-husband Ralph, who tries to rekindle their relationship. McDowell can play a diabolical villain in his sleep, but he conveys a degree of humanity in this monster.
“Moving On” is a delight that will connect far beyond the target audience of this subgenre. It has set the bar much higher for entertainment made about and for this particular demographic. Weitz reminds us this audience and these veteran actors shouldn’t have to settle.