Monday Movie: The Search for Signs of Inteligent Life in the Universe, by David Bax
There’s a perfect blend of cynicism and determination that, when executed correctly, tends to get me right where it counts (there’s a reason I’ve often been drawn even more to Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s spinoff, Angel, than I am to the original recipe). John Bailey’s The Search for Signs of Inteligent Life in the Universe (I’m preserving the title’s onscreen misspelling) often hits that mark, even though it also whiffs wildly more than once. The screenplay is by Jane Wagner and the sole performer is Lily Tomlin, just as it was performed on Broadway. But where the play only featured Tomlin on a bare stage wearing one simple outfit throughout, Bailey transitions back and forth from that setup to more fleshed out, filmic sets and costumes.
Nearly all of the characters Tomlin plays are women. Wagner’s thoughts on late twentieth century American femininity are complex, messy and compelling. For every down and out character like punk rock performance artist teenager Agnes Angst or the pair of chatty prostitutes, there’s the wryly miserable wealthy woman who prints out an article on the negative health effects of boredom and then mixes it up with the suicide note she carries around in her purse. These varied perspectives on womanhood in our times come together in the second half’s extended vignette that follows a 1970s Ms. Magazine subscribing ERA activist through two decades of compromise and slowly eroding values. Her final summation that it’s hard to be “politically conscious and upwardly mobile as the same time” is as tragic as it is bitterly hilarious.
The Search for Signs of Inteligent Life in the Universe isn’t all hits. Agnes Angst, for one, is clearly written by someone who hasn’t been a teenager in quite a while. And Tomlin’s mercifully brief appearance in blackface is inexcusable. But Wagner’s point of view, that the world is terrible but at least we’re in it together, rings true and moving.