Movies about women who have been friends for decades embarking on some form of sassy post-retirement, Social Security-funded mischief have become ubiquitous enough to obscure the fact that Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, stars of 80 for Brady and the TV show Grace and Frankie, really have been friends for decades, going back to the beloved revenge comedy 9 to 5. Moving On makes good, sneaky use of their career bookends, drawing on the ease with which Fonda and Tomlin can depict a longtime friendship (with gaps in communication standing in for stretches where neither performer, especially Fonda, was appearing in many films) while also undermining the expectations of anyone expecting Book Club-like affirmations of life after 70. As they often do, Tomlin and Fonda make their material look sharper than it really is.
Indeed, the premise of Moving On, laid out with admirable concision by writer-director Paul Weitz, is just a few prodding music cues away from zaniness. Claire (Jane Fonda) arrives in California to attend the funeral of her old college roommate, and to inform the departed’s husband Howard (Malcolm McDowell) that she intends to kill him. Claire’s other ex-roommate, the more sardonic Evelyn (Lily Tomlin), does not exactly believe that Claire will go through with it, but she willingly accompanies her anyway as she goes through the motions of gun-shopping and murder-planning. You never know what these old gals are gonna say, or who they might want to kill!
Moving On certainly has passages–too many, really–happy to indulge that screenwriterly sense of “funny” breached proprieties. Every time anyone interacts with Howard, transparently played by McDowell as an irredeemable villain, you can practically hear the flutter of script pages, especially when Evelyn is introduced by wandering into the funeral through the wrong entrance, blithely interrupting Howard’s eulogy with her casual give-no-fucks truth-telling.
But when Evelyn reunites with Claire after a long absence from each other’s lives, the movie locates a core of genuine regret that cannot be remedied by Tom Brady or an impromptu vacation. Moving On takes its central conceit seriously enough to simultaneously admit that Claire’s plan to murder Howard may not be especially well-thought-out (can a visitor from Ohio really buy a gun in California?) and generate the suspicion that she may well go through with it anyway. In this sense, Evelyn works as an audience stand-in, gently skeptical of Claire’s methods but sympathetic about her reasons. Here, the movie refuses to pull punches and give Claire a grudge that can be softened into a pat lesson in forgiveness. No, she wants to kill Howard because decades ago, he raped her, a violation she then kept secret for the rest of her friend’s life, scared of ruining it even as her own relationships fell apart. Not exactly Book Club material, though less surprising if you recall that Weitz previously directed Tomlin in the abortion-centric dramedy Grandma.
While Moving On doesn’t pull any punches with its backstory, it’s less steadfast depicting the more direct repercussions of Howard’s evil. Claire also reconnects with her ex-husband Ralph (Richard Roundtree), who never knew about what Howard did to her. It’s easy to believe this, not so much because of the culture of silence around sexual assault and rape, but because Fonda and Roundtree don’t really master the rhythms of two people who used to be married, drifted apart, and now find themselves attracted to each other again. Roundtree is charming, but feels more like an old acquaintance and missed opportunity than someone who once shared a life with Fonda.
Still, points for trying; points for scoring the movie with Sharon Van Etten tracks rather than golden oldies (or gag-driven pop hits); points for an old-folks-evaluating-their-lives story that has the kind of bittersweet hangout energy that more overt comedies tend to smother with incident and eventual uplift. At one point, Evelyn notes that she’s often mistaken for being “funny” when she’s really “just talking,” an idea that goes a long way to mitigate the potential shtickiness of Tomlin’s shuffling performance, which threatens to nudge into the red when her character is forced to make a scene. (Evelyn also harbors a secret related to the recently deceased.) The best bits and pieces of Moving On come in between the big confrontations and revelations; this is a movie with a perceptive sense of the downtime that occurs between major life-and-death events, to the point where it could have afforded to spend even more of its 85 minutes there. If it ultimately feels akin to Weitz’s likable but not-quite-there dramedies like In Good Company and Admission, he’s at least made a Fonda/Tomlin vehicle that feels true to their resilience beneath their images, rather than a superficial tribute to their surfaces.
Director: Paul Weitz
Writer: Paul Weitz
Starring: Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Malcolm McDowell, Richard Roundtree, Sarah Burns
Release Date: March 17, 2023
Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.