When “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” was staged on Broadway, it and star Lily Tomlin did not lack for glory, with Tomlin winning not only a Tony, but also a Drama Desk Award and an Outer Critic’s Circle Award for best actress. Why then, in turning the play into a film, were Tomlin, longtime collaborator and writer Jane Wagner and director-cinematographer John Bailey unable to resist the urge to improve on what was clearly a superior product?
That question is relevant because, although the tinkering doesn’t totally ruin “Intelligent Life” (at the Park Theatre, rated PG-13), it does needlessly get in the way of its virtues. And it underlines a fairly chronic problem of play-to-film transformations: an unwillingness to trust either the material or the audience for which it is being produced.
Certainly, Tomlin’s abilities as an observant, on-the-money social satirist are beyond question. In “Intelligent Life” she treats us to a variety of loosely connected characters, from Trudy the street person, creative consultant to visiting aliens, to 15-year-old punkette Agnus Angst, whose anthem is, “I’m getting my act together and throwing it in your face.”
Like Eric Bogosian, it is Tomlin’s special skill to make these people come alive using only language and physical gesture. It is what she did in the stage version of “Intelligent Life” and what she mostly does in the film. Unfortunately, a decision was made to have Tomlin spend time in costume for each of her characters. So we see Trudy in full bag lady regalia, Brandy the hooker in what looks like the same red leopard-skin jacket Theresa Russell wears in “Whore,” and so on. Also, the changes of character are invariably marked by very gimmicky flashes of cinematic lightening.
Granted it may have been fun for Tomlin to play dress-up, and the other changes no doubt made all concerned feel they were taking great creative steps forward, tying the individual sketches into a cinematic whole, but the total effect only serves to distract, pounding us with frenetic glitz when we’re trying to concentrate on what should be most important, the words and the performance.
Also, stunts like this inevitably look like the powers-that-be worried that the feeble movie audience, as opposed to the deep thinkers who patronize the theater, wouldn’t understand that Tomlin was playing several different people unless they could actually be seen, a notion that needlessly condescends both to those viewers and to Tomlin herself.
The final irony of all this is that the most potent, emotionally effective scene in the film is one done almost entirely without change of costume or cinematic trickery. That would be the story of committed feminist Lyn, her marriage to Bob, the holistic capitalist, and her gradual discovery of what the system does to people who try to change it. This is pure joyous Tomlin, tempered only by the fact that, if anything, it makes the impurities of the rest of the film stand out in sharper, more painful relief.
‘The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe’
A Tomlin and Wagner Theatricalz presentation in association with Showtime, released by Orion Classics. Director John Bailey. Producer Paula Mazur. Executive producers Lily Tomlin, Jane Wagner. Screenplay by Jane Wagner, based on her play. Cinematographer John Bailey. Editor Carol Littleton. Costumes Daniel Paredes. Music Jerry Goodman. Art director Ed Richardson. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.