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Bette Davis famously owned a pillow with the adage “old age ain’t no place for sissies” stitched across it. This truism is at the heart of writer/director Paul Weitz’s “Moving On,” which stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as Claire and Evelyn, two aging, estranged friends thrown together again after decades at the funeral of their mutual friend Joyce.
A melodrama with comedic elements, plot-wise the film is about Claire’s desire to get vengeance for a sexual assault perpetrated by Joyce’s husband Howard (Malcolm McDowell) nearly 50 years earlier that completely derailed her life. In the wake of the event, she pulled away from Joyce and Evelyn, left her loving husband Ralph (Richard Roundtree, as charming and suave as ever), and has spent most of her life petrified by the trauma.
Yet, this is not a film that exists solely for its plot mechanics. It’s a clear-eyed examination of the compounding weight of growing older, of carrying your life and your hopes and your memories and your regrets with you everywhere you go. The title, “Moving On,” does not just mean to move beyond your past but also to keep moving forward in life, even if your past stays with you.
Like the characters they play, Fonda and Tomlin have spent decades building a deep friendship while appearing together in projects like “9 to 5” and “Grace and Frankie,” and their chemistry shines as bright as ever. They are not, however, just playing versions of their own personas.
Claire is a woman who never found her own power, always living for others after the assault left her “mute.” Fonda plays her with a somber rigidity, holding her body tight as if thousands of emotions are one moment away from escaping the cage she’s built around them. As she reconnects with Evelyn, Ralph, and even Howard, Claire’s long-repressed sense of humor, sensuality, and seething anger she kept hidden for so long find their way to the surface.
Tomlin plays retired musician Evelyn with her trademark deadpan sensibility, always seeming to say what she means and what feels at any given moment, unafraid to be unabashedly herself. Yet, Evelyn is a woman with secrets, wounded pride, and a passion for music – and for women – that hasn’t had an outlet in far too long. She secretly ekes out as free an existence as she can in the independent section of an assisted living facility. Joyce’s death, and Claire’s return to her life, bring out in Evelyn a bevy of complex emotions, this shift played with subtle precision by Tomlin, whose eyes belie her stoic face and monotonous voice.
While Evelyn helps Claire plot out how to get her revenge, the two discuss the immediate aftermath of the incident. Claire didn’t report it to the police because “They wouldn’t have believed me.” On one hand, the dialogue here is on the nose, yet when looking back 50 years and then forward again, and seeing that not much has changed for women in this country in terms of their bodily autonomy and the prosecution of rapists, perhaps on the nose becomes just the truth.
When Claire does finally get to say her peace to Howard, she graphically describes the assault, recalling every horrid detail as if it happened yesterday and not nearly 50 years ago because, for her, time stopped on that day. Fonda delivers this monologue with as much power and conviction as any in her career, tapping into the weight not just of Claire’s trauma but all the compound traumas that the actress has witnessed as a woman in this country for the last half-century.
For his part, McDowell plays Howard as the kind of privileged man who has done just enough work on himself to consider himself a “changed man” yet has only really achieved healing for himself and for his own sake, not for those he’s harmed. Howard is less a character than an emblem of all the powerful men who get away with it over and over and over again. This could be seen as a failure at the script level, but it also allows Howard to get his just desserts at the end without the audience feeling too bad for the family he leaves behind.
While the tonal shifts from melodrama to mordant comedy don’t always work, Fonda and Tomlin are as good as they have ever been and “Moving On” proves itself a powerful rumination on the strength it takes to age—mentally, physically, and economically. It takes strength to live with yourself and your traumas, to embrace your pleasures, and to be there for those you care about despite it all.
Now playing in theaters.