Thelma (2024)

Richard Roundtree and June Squibb are out for revenge in “Thelma.”

Trippy ‘Thelma’ adds a new wrinkle to aging

Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother man; the cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about? I’m talkin’ ’bout Ben. Wait, Ben? Yup, you know that bad mother formerly known as Shaft. He’s now Ben, aka Richard Roundtree, an octogenarian mellowed by age but no less cool, as he and his nonagenarian homie cruise L.A. aboard a fly mobility scooter in search of vengeance.

Crazy, right? You bet! And in the delectable “Thelma” the recently deceased Roundtree goes out with a bang. One loud enough to possibly nab a posthumous Oscar nomination, if his peers choose wisely. I believe they will after witnessing his grand theft of a movie written for another national treasure, June Squibb. She’s the title character in Josh Margolin’s family dramedy about a 93-year-old granny threatening to bust a cap in the ass of the crook who dared bilk her out of $10,000.

As with her Oscar-nominated role in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska,” Squibb is pure delight, proving again you’re never too old to be a badass. I adore her in the part, but the actor I can’t shake is Roundtree as Thelma’s sage accomplice. He imbues Ben with such warmth and charm I felt let down whenever he’s off-screen, which is too often.

What can I say, I love the guy and infinitely prefer time with him over Thelma’s rote, sitcomy family of daughter, Gail (Parker Posey); son-in-law, Alan (Clark Gregg); and annoying grandson, Danny (blah newcomer Fred Hechinger). But reducing their roles would mean less of Margolin’s alter-ego, Danny, who errantly envisions himself as an essential element in his granny’s story. I get it, the tale is based on Margolin’s grandma and how he served as her part-time chauffeur and cyber instructor in her revenge tour. But that doesn’t justify devoting so much screen-time to himself, er Danny, and his equally dull, one-note parents, as they frantically search for their AWOL Nana.

Like clockwork, the story sags whenever the focus shifts toward Thelma’s kin and soars when concentrating on the adventures of our silver-haired heroes, as they encounter and conquer various obstacles on their quixotic quest. Margolin occasionally loses sight of his initially grand idea to present a comical, yet realistic testimonial to how it sucks getting old: the loss of mobility, the rapidly shrinking circle of living friends and being treated like a toddler by your fretting offspring.

That stuff is effective, especially when Thelma and Ben are confronted with the stark realization that they aren’t kids anymore, even though they still feel like it inside. Margolin prudently milks the inherent humor and pathos to the fullest, but undercuts it whenever the focus shifts to the Keystone Kop machinations of the family.

The premise, though, is terrific. It’s also cathartic for those among us who’ve fallen victim to a phone scammer. Sometimes, these vishing schemes sound eerily legit, just like the one Thelma receives from a panicked young man claiming to be Danny. The caller tells her there’s been an accident, he’s been arrested and needs $10,000 in cash mailed ASAP to his attorney’s P.O. box.

Congruent with the movie’s borderline offensive old-age tropes, Thelma has precisely that amount stashed under her mattress and in other hiding places throughout her L.A. flat. But almost as soon as she drops the dough in the post, it dawns on her she’s been duped. She then makes the mistake of coming clean to Gail, who erupts into a warehouse-for-mom tizzy, suggesting Thelma is too old to live on her own. Instead of conceding, Thelma takes the proposal as a sorta challenge, seeking to establish her cognizance by enlisting the aid of an unwitting Ben to track down the thieves, a la Tom Cruise in one of her favorite “Mission: Impossible” flicks.

Margolin has fun depositing Thelma in various action-film scenarios, including chases, computer hacking and my favorite, a resourceful hearing aid-cellphone hookup by which Ben covertly guides her through a minefield of dangers to access the scam’s mothership. It’s funny and clever, but it also conveys a profound message of how quick society is to stereotype people over 75. Just ask Joe Biden.

The sentiment resonates because Margolin delivers it with humor and wit, accentuated by the bond opposites Thelma and Ben forge in common pursuit of a goal even they believe is unobtainable. It’s inspiring, and Squibb and Roundtree nail it with an abundance of heart and tenacity. The duo is so powerful you continue to bemoan the decision not to capitalize on them alone.

Face it, Gail, Alan and Danny serve no purpose, other than to remind Thelma it may be time to enter assisted living, a presumption she and Ben consistently prove wrong. It reaches a point where Margolin’s script starts contradicting itself. Are all seniors doddering, as the younger folks imply, or are some sharper than others, as Ben and Thelma repeatedly demonstrate?

Perhaps I’m being nitpicky. After all, “Thelma” is meant to be carefree and chill, the perfect summer movie. But given the relevance – and necessity – of the subject matter it left me wanting more: like further depth and fewer strained geriatric jokes typical of youth-obsessed Hollywood. If you want to honestly address aging, begin there. For that attitude is what is truly feeble and growing old fast.

Movie review


Rated: PG-13 for strong language

Cast: June Squibb, Richard Roundtree, Parker Posey, Clark Gregg, Fred Hechinger and Malcolm McDowell

Director: Josh Margolin

Writer: Josh Margolin

Runtime: 98 minutes

Where: In theaters June 21

Grade: B

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