Adapting The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, their celebrated stage show, Lily Tomlin and longtime collaborator Jane Wagner have fashioned a remarkably fluid, engrossing and entertaining film, directed by cinematographer John Bailey.
A showcase for Tomlin's style of observational, character-based comedy, the plot, such as it is, is more pretext than premise. Tomlin plays all roles in the loose story of Trudy, a demented bag lady, entertaining visitors from space one rainy evening in the city, whose sojourn leads her to
intersect with a wide variety of other lives. These include Chrissy, a perennially unemployed dyslexic secretary who struggles with the dilemma of being creative but untalented. Kate, the wealthy woman who has just fired her, also makes an appearance, sporting a haircut so comically atrocious that
the bag lady lends her an umbrella hat to save it from further shrinkage. Kate has spent a night on the town at a Carnegie Hall concert watching a child violin prodigy who was fathered by Paul, a vapid health-spa stud, for a lesbian couple via a turkey baster. The lesbians are friends of two other
women who figure prominently, one a career woman and supermom bent on having it all who instead winds up losing almost everything, the other a sensitive bookstore owner who, trying to maintain the purity of her feminist ideals, descends into alcoholism and suicide after first becoming a rape
victim then being virtually abandoned by her other two friends. Her suicide note inadvertently winds up in the hands of Kate, who carries it with her everywhere. Other characters include the prostitutes Brandy and Tina, picked up by an unseen writer, for whom Trudy makes a curbside restaurant run.
They are led into ruminations on mortality and survival after spotting the 15-year-old Agnus Angst shrieking in the rain. A terminally rebellious latchkey kid, Agnus leaves home after her parents change the locks on their doors and moves in with her grandparents, Lud and Marie, who fret because
she frightens the neighbors and wears elaborate clothes, heavy on the metal, that cause their remote-powered garage door to open of its own accord. Agnus has a long scene in which she pours her heart out to a radio psychiatrist from the phone booth of a pancake restaurant only to be cut off for a
Just as Tomlin runs through a dazzling variety of characters and experiences, all portrayed with a basic credibility and sympathy, so does the film run through a dazzling variety of moods. Often shriekingly funny, THE SEARCH FOR SIGNS also veers freely from wit to burlesque, pathos and elsewhere.
Though it flirts with preachiness, particularly in its later stages in the story of the three women friends who drift apart, it always maintains a clear-eyed focus on its characters' basic humanity. The film maintains its high overall quality in the midst of an incredible quantity of caracters by
keeping its focus on the implied overall theme that nobody is ever wholly a victim, villain, hero or heroine.
Celebrated throughout is the limitless human capacity to turn the most brutal adversities into art and philosophy, in some cases, as with the suicide, almost against their wills. Following contemptible performance films by Eddie Murphy and Andrew Dice Clay that set out to whip their audiences
into rabid frenzies by pandering to their basest instincts of cynicism and sexism, Tomlin and Wagner largely succeed by following the far more challenging and rewarding course of respecting their audience's highest intelligence and sensitivity. (Adult situations.)
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- Released: 1991
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: Adapting The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, their celebrated stage show, Lily Tomlin and longtime collaborator Jane Wagner have fashioned a remarkably fluid, engrossing and entertaining film, directed by cinematographer John Bailey.… (more)