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‘Moving On’ at Athena Film Festival, Starring Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda

(L to R): Lily Tomlin as Evelyn and Jane Fonda as Claire in Paul Weiz's comedy 'Moving On' (courtesy of Athena FF & Roadside Attractions)
(L to R): Lily Tomlin as Evelyn and Jane Fonda as Claire in Paul Weiz’s comedy Moving On (courtesy of Athena FF & Roadside Attractions)

Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, whose duo and friendship has been shining in films and TV for decades, work their magic in Paul Weiz’ hilarious comedy Moving On which Athena Film Festival presented in the film’s New York City premiere at Barnard College the third day of the four-day festival. Moving On premiere screened at Toronto Film Festival in September and will be showing in US theaters on March 17th. Athena Film Festival’s Artistic Director and Co-founder Melissa Silverstein also held a talk back via Zoom with director/writer Paul Weiz about the actors, the concept and a humorous take on Malcolm McDowell’s great good will in an always authentic performance playing the villain Howard that audiences love to despise.

Academy Award®-nominated* writer Paul Weitz admitted the conceit to Melissa Silverstein that had been haunted him for a few years before he wrote the film then set out to cast it with Academy Award® winner Jane Fonda and Academy Award® nominee Lily Tomlin. Beware, here comes a spoiler alert. The dialogue, which Weiz says he hears first rather than sees images, entranced him. “I’m going to kill you Howard,” was the phrase which Claire (Fonda is sparky white wig which she chose as revelatory to the character) says to her deceased friend’s widower (a crusty, petulant Malcolm McDowell) at the the funeral. The set-up is humorous as Claire’s Fonda looks angrily determined and McDowell appears both alarmed and annoyed to be so interfered with at a high moment of grieving with guests gathered around. We assume that Claire isn’t actually serious about her threat and perhaps is upset and delivering a quasi chiding threat.

2023 Athena Film Festival, live at Barnard, with March 5th the last day (courtesy of Carole Di Tosti)
2023 Athena Film Festival, live at Barnard, with March 5th the last day (courtesy of Carole Di Tosti)

However, when Tomlin’s Evelyn sees Claire and the two estranged friends begin to warm up to each, Claire reveals that her intentions are not only serious, she has thought about how she is going to kill Howard. At this juncture the film becomes a hybrid comedy, mystery, thriller. Will she be able to pull off Howard’s murder without out getting caught which she doesn’t particularly care about? Why does she want to kill Howard? And will Evelyn’s and Claire’s friendship bond once more over Claire’s pursuing revenge, which Evelyn doubts she has the “guts” to do since she never followed through on plans she confided in Evelyn years ago.

How Weiz, Tomlin, Fonda, McDowell and Richard Roundtree who portrays Ralph, Claire’s second husband, unfold the comic, poignant, sardonic and quasi suspenseful series of events to answer the questions makes for an entertaining and LOL romp into relationships, suppressed secrets, estrangements and reunions, truth-telling and love and concern for each other when most needed.

Weiz’s characters are authentic and true-to-life and the actors portray them with specificity and detail down to their costumes which Weiz discussed the actors had a hand in developing. Tomlin’s Evelyn is humorous and ironic, yet poignant as she confronts aging in an Assisted Living Center where she comes and goes as she pleases and eventually brings Claire to, though she is embarrassed about it and in their initial meeting lied telling Claire that she still lived in her adorable house. A former classical cellist who has arthritis and now finds it painful to play, Evelyn also lies about having continued her performances with a symphony. The scene where she attempts to play and can’t is a cruel one and a reminder of aging vicissitudes which have no answer except to endure them.

Weiz devotes time to rounding out both Evelyn and Claire with just enough backstory to spill into the present conflicts they have with each other as well as their interior hurts and difficulties in the decades since they’ve seen each other. For example Evelyn who is gay is friendly with an adorable youngster who is the grandson of one of the clients in the Assisted Living Center. The youngster loves putting on women’s clothes and Evelyn obliged him in a previous encounter while his parents visited his grandfather. Evelyn gives him earrings which he loves wearing and which become a point of contention with his parents later in the film. In a brief encounter with the parents, the youngster and Evelyn, we understand the decades of repression and rejection Evelyn as a gay woman experienced which the youngster’s parents are subjecting him to. Evelyn provides a hug and much needed warmth as they say goodbye with the scowling parents looking on after he returns the earrings to her.

 2023 Athena Film Festival returns live at Barnard College (courtesy of Carole Di Tosti)
2023 Athena Film Festival returns live at Barnard College (courtesy of Carole Di Tosti)

The scene is a powerful one and substantiates the side-plot of how Evelyn as a gay woman for years had to be selective about her friends with whom she could and couldn’t reveal her identity with. Weiz’s fullness, clarity and profound writing strikes many chords about friendship, prejudice and love. And the character a perfect fit for Tomlin humorously reveals that she, too needs to get in on Claire’s revenge on Howard.

Weiz gradually reveals the mystery of why Claire intends to kill Howard. Key in bringing the truth to the fore is the relationship that Claire reestablishes with her former husband Roundtree’s Ralph, who she left because of what Howard did. The scenes between Roundtree’s Ralph and Fonda’s Claire are sensitively acted, enjoyable and humorous. Roundtree and Fonda are classic and modern and Weiz’s direction establishes him as a perceptive, incisive and philosophical humorous who is able to tease out the strengths of his actors to effect superb performances.

Likewise, Weiz shepherds the actors present their characters with spot-on authenticity in the scenes between Tomlin and Fonda in the planning of Howard’s death to the moment when Claire’s Fonda confronts McDowell’s Howard with an incident that occurred between them that changed her life. As we are kept in suspense about the revelations of what happened between them at the point when Claire threatens to kill him, we become shocked at their different responses to the incident. Howard, a reformed alcoholic was drunk and barely remembers what occurred. What he does recall from his different perspective, makes a case that Claire was blowing the situation out of proportion with the “hysterical woman” syndrome. The scene is symbolic, the actors fantastic and the profound meaning historic though the situation is as real as it gets. The writing, the acting and the direction are just great.

As a villain who is an everyman and charming individual, McDowell’s Howard walks the tight-rope of husband, father and lover of his deceased wife with sensitivity humor and complete normalcy. His shock and alarm at Claire’s accusations are humorous, his indignation hysterical. His is the most difficult role because we know the least about him with which to empathize, yet the director and actor make the necessary accommodations to reveal just enough so that the conclusion of the film when all the puzzle pieces are wrapped up is both hysterical and delightful

Weiz in his Q and A with Silverstein commented on the “beatings” that both Fonda and Tomlin delivered to McDowell were humorous if ferocious. And McDowell was “OK” about it. The title Weiz said affirmed that forgiveness, redemption and healing as themes of the film, which Evelyn and especially Claire experience, allow them to move forward with their renewed relationships and different perspectives about their past, key pieces of which would never have happened if they didn’t attend their friend’s funeral and take a stand for the truth publicly. The scene where Tomlin’e Evelyn speaks truth to power at the funeral is priceless and yields something glorious about who she is. Also, Weiz mentioned that governed by the dialogue and voices of the characters he was writing that moved him, once the initial line at the funeral emerged from his consciousness, the characterizations and situations unfolded and he finished the script quickly.

This is an enjoyable, classic film that is more current than the Marvel movies that populate screens globally and whose fantasy sometimes never transcends a puerile audience. Moving On is an exceptional effort by the actors and director and seamlessly entertains with humor, great comedic timing and overall good will. See it in theaters March 17th.

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