“Taking from an elderly person is as bad as stealing from a child,” growls Jason Statham in “The Beekeeper,” reinforcing the image of “helpless” old people in need of defending. (He spends the rest of the movie knocking heads after scammers steal money from his gullible landlady.) With “Thelma,” writer-director Josh Margolin tries out a different approach, casting nonagenarian character actor June Squibb as an unlikely yet satisfying action star. It’s a cute idea, celebrating the willpower and determination of a 93-years-young woman. If audiences are willing to suspend their disbelief for “The Beekeeper,” why not do the same when it’s Squibb on a rampage?
“Thelma” bloomed out of Margolin’s relationship with his own grandmother, and its more endearing dialogue exchanges were directly lifted from things the real-life Thelma says and does (as of the indie film’s Sundance premiere, Margolin’s inspiration was alive, well and 103). Squibb’s character has a doting — and slightly dopey — grandson of her own, Daniel (Fred Hechinger, from “White Lotus” Season 1), who visits regularly, doing his best to explain such unfamiliar concepts as email and computers.
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No wonder Thelma seems so concerned when she gets a call from a young man claiming to be her grandson. The voice on the other end sounds strange to Thelma as he describes a confusing car accident, but she adores Daniel enough to fall for it. The young man instructs Thelma to call his “lawyer” (that’s Malcolm McDowell’s voice on the other end), who instructs her to send $10,000 in cash to a private P.O. box. It’s a familiar ploy — my own grandmother was taken in by a similar con — and one that police are largely incapable of enforcing, though I suspect the culprits are rarely as small-time as “Thelma” makes them out to be (nor as big-time as “The Beekeeper” would have us believe).
It could have been a lot worse, reason her loved ones (led by Parker Posey, relegated to an uptight supporting role opposite Clark Gregg’s father-knows-best type as Thelma’s fussy daughter and son-in-law). At least she wasn’t hurt, Daniel chimes in. And then everyone goes on with their lives. Everyone but Thelma. With a wink to “Mission: Impossible” star Tom Cruise, she resolves to recover the money herself, sneaking out and enlisting her late husband’s best friend, Ben (late “Shaft” star Richard Roundtree), who reluctantly lends her his electric wheelchair.
Speaking from experience, when an elderly loved one is taken advantage of like this, caring family members do not simply go on with their lives. More likely, such an incident would spark the Talk — as in, a serious discussion of what steps need to be taken to better protect the victim. I can imagine another version of this story where, overhearing her family debating whether to upgrade her to an assisted living facility after the theft, Thelma decides to prove that she’s still capable enough to settle the issue on her own (in which case the stakes seem higher, for failure means forfeiting her freedom). What I cannot imagine is how Margolin justifies skipping over the inevitable family powwow waiting on the other side of her adventure.
Thelma’s outing is certain to have consequences; Margolin simply doesn’t care to consider them. That’s because the movie is basically a valentine to his headstrong granny. “Thelma” may bill itself as an unconventional action movie, but it’s more of a sitcom, really (one clue: Nick Chuba’s tinkly, occasionally Lalo Schifrin-inspired score serves mostly as wallpaper, punching up the movie’s generally whimsical energy). The result is less edgy than triad-defying “Lucky Grandma” or the irreverent late-career romps featuring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, like “Grandma” and “Moving On.”
Given its affectionate, gently comedic tone, “Thelma” never tackles the serious dimension of its subject — at least, not beyond noting the risk that a 93-year-old injures more easily than heroes half her age. At one point, she and Ben stop in to collect a handgun from a forgetful old friend (Bunny Levine) who lives alone, and the movie acknowledges how dangerous such arrangements can be. In Thelma’s case, she’s already had breast cancer, a double mastectomy, sepsis, edema, a valve replacement, a hip replacement and a brain tumor. She knows that if she falls, it’s game over, which makes her mission all the more courageous.
Despite having acted nearly all her life, Squibb got a relatively late start in movies, where she’s been stealing scenes ever since (most memorably in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska”). This character isn’t nearly so punchy, which makes the finale feel rather anticlimactic. Thelma ultimately manages to locate the criminals who conned her, though the confrontation is weaker than we’ve been promised.
That patronizing line from “The Beekeeper,” where Statham compares elderly people to children, feels a little too apt as “Thelma” treats the big showdown the way a kids movie might. Margolin would probably argue it’s more realistic that way, though the only thing that feels real is how deeply he adores her. In the end, it’s not a high-concept “Stop or My Meemaw Will Shoot” so much as a warm hug, one that anybody with an elderly relative can appreciate on some level.
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