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The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

Directed by John Bailey. Starring Lily Tomlin.

REVIEWED By Robert Faires, Fri., May 21, 1993

There's so much to life. So much uncertainty, so much we can't control. And everybody -- the punk teen, the elderly couple, the bag lady, the body builder, the socialite, the prostitute -- shares a sense of this almost overwhelming much-ness and the need to find some place for themselves in it, some meaning. Jane Wagner's script is a stellar mosaic of monologues, with the above characters describing their quest to find a home in the cosmos and catching a glimmer of the wonder that lies in the simple company of other humans. It's a meteor swarm of comic observation, as densely packed as an Oscar Wilde comedy, and as precisely worded, with Wagner's wit en pointe, dancing atop the language. Tomlin plays all the parts, just as she did in her Tony-winning performance of the same material on Broadway, and she dances, too, gliding from silken-voiced swell to gravelly-throated grandpa to high-pitched petulant teen with the grace of Astaire. This 1991 film (which originally received an extremely limited theatrical release) preserves much of the stage show's bare-bones theatrical presentation, with Tomlin performing in street clothes, without a set or props. These scenes are fascinating for the ways they showcase Tomlin's skill and versatility -- the actress in constant motion, layering her characterizations with a flick of her wrist, a hand through her hair, a shift of her hips -- but they come off as somewhat sterile, too. They were filmed without an audience, and we can sense something missing, the energy of the crowd that Tomlin was accustomed to on stage. Perhaps that's why Tomlin, Wagner, and cinematographer-turned-director Bailey (who shot American Gigolo, Mishima, The Big Chill) filmed some segments with Tomlin in costume and make-up on elaborate sets. In these scenes, the actress appears more relaxed, content to be playing to the camera, and we see again what she showed us years ago in Nashville, that on screen she can convey a compassion that seems boundless. Search provides us with a charming record of an important stage show, but its greatest gift is Lily Tomlin in closeup, her eyes warm and open as the infinite night.
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