Filmmakers' tricks hinder Tomlin's genius

November 22, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

I wish they hadn't decided to make a "movie" out of the wonderful play Jane Wagner wrote for her friend Lily Tomlin. I wish they had just set the camera in the cheap seats, turned it on and said, "OK, Lily, you can start now. We're going for coffee. Turn it off when you're done."

But Noooo-ooooooo. A "movie," complete to jump cuts, "special effects," costumes, coy filmic conceits like split screens, snappy editing, all of which simply get in the way of the Tomlin genius.

Cut the stuff! Shaddup with the tricks! Let her work.

And when she works, she's sublime. The core of the film, which opens today at the Senator, is a long, bittersweet performance piece in which Tomlin creates not just a character but a whole world: She's a young woman on the cusp of liberation in the late '60s, entering into a marriage of equals with a man she loves and respects and the two of them are about to remake the system; then she's a contented housewife, watching her boys grow, nurturing her husband's career, only secretly bitter about the way she's had to sidetrack hers; and then she's the bitter, betrayed divorcee, left to ponder a liberation stolen from her.

Wagner writes brilliantly observant stuff: trenchant, full of pointed topical references, both satirical and poignant at once. She lets us see her character's delusions, which we can laugh at, but also her pain. Under the comedy we sense the authenticity.

Another long set piece depends a little bit more on props and cutting: two prostitutes, one white, one black, lounge in a car while discussing their lives and The Life with an unseen journalist. I'm not sure how this worked on stage -- did Tomlin dip between personalities? -- but on screen it's effective and moving to the degree that it's not terribly gimmicky. The setup, the two women, the performance -- that's all.

There are sporadic moments of brilliance in what accompanies these two long sections, but nothing sustained. The frame story (aliens inhabit Tomlin's beloved good-hearted bag lady Trudy and she takes them on a "tour" of life on earth, which is to say she camps outside the theater where Lily Tomlin is performing the play we are about to see) feels a bit precious. More of Lily would have gone a lot further.

'The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe'

Starring Lily Tomlin.

Directed by John Bailey.

Released by Orion.

Rated PG-13.

***

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