‘Moving On’ Review: Cracking Jokes and Settling Scores

Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda team up in an awkward comedy about two women contemplating the murder of a predatory man.

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By A.O. Scott

After 23 years as a film critic at the Times, he is moving on to a new post at the Book Review.

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Let me say right up front that I would happily watch Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda in anything — except for maybe that one about the football player. Their comic partnership, inaugurated back in 1980 with “Nine To Five” and honed during the seasons of “Grace and Frankie,” is one of the blessings of modern pop culture. It is certainly the main pleasure of “Moving On,” an otherwise thin and muddled new film directed by Paul Weitz.

Weitz, who directed Tomlin in the sublime “Grandma” and the misguided “Admission” — the high points of his up-and-down filmography are still “About a Boy” and “In Good Company” — has a style that’s by turns genial and prickly. He embeds laughter in the possibility and sometimes the fact of real pain, and extends even his most wayward characters the benefit of the doubt.

Tomlin and Fonda hardly need that. They play Evelyn and Claire, two college pals whose paths cross at the funeral of another old friend. Claire (Fonda), devoted to her pet corgi and a bit chillier with her daughter and grandson, travels from Ohio to Southern California with a sinister plan. She is going to murder the bereaved husband, Howard (Malcolm McDowell). Claire announces this to anyone who will listen, including Howard himself and Evelyn (Tomlin), who signs up as an accomplice.

Howard seems like a generally unpleasant guy, but the reason for Claire’s grudge is grimly specific. It becomes clear fairly early on that “Moving On” is operating in strange and risky genre territory. If the phrase “rape-revenge comedy” sounds like an oxymoron, this movie won’t convince you otherwise. And even though you can’t help but root for the would-be killers to deliver a much-deserved comeuppance, this vengeance is oversweetened and served lukewarm.

Fonda’s wary melancholy effectively communicates the persistence of trauma and Claire’s long-suppressed rage at the man who inflicted it. Tomlin, in the familiar role of bohemian sidekick — Evelyn is a retired cellist — is less flaky than Frankie, and not quite as steely as Elle in “Grandma.” “People think I’m being funny when I’m just talking,” Evelyn observes, which is a pretty good summary of Tomlin’s own comic genius.

But Weitz’s script doesn’t give her that much to say, and wavers between silliness and social consciousness without making room for its story. There are reminiscences about the past, but no sense of the weight of lived experience. A few tender encounters — notably Claire’s romantic reconnection with her first husband, Ralph (Richard Roundtree) and Evelyn’s friendship with the gender-nonconforming grandson of a neighbor — gesture toward an emotional complexity that never fully blossoms.

Something else is missing here — a farcical energy or satirical audacity that might shock the premise to unsettling life, or else a deeper, darker core of feeling. “Moving On” takes refuge in pleasantness, and in the easy charm of its stars. Who are, as I’ve said, consistently enjoyable to watch. Which might be the problem.

Moving On
Rated R. “Rape-revenge comedy.” Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes. In theaters.

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