there are at least a dozen mainstream American comedies made over the last 15 years that rank among the best movies ever. A few have gained some recognition (“Tootsie,” “My Cousin Vinnie,” “Broadcast News”), but a whole lot more (“Soap Dish,” “My Blue Heaven,” “Gremlins 2,” “Get Shorty”) have languished in some nether world of cinematic reputation, not quirky enough to be cult classics and not loud enough to be gigantic popular successes.
And yet they wear well. Unlike the “great” Oscar-grabbing movies of the time (“Gandhi,” say, or “Amadeus” or “Kiss of the Spider Woman” or “Places in the Heart”), they reward repeated viewings. They’re funny and smart; even more remarkable, they each emerged from the big studio sausage factory that was at the same time producing some of the lamest glossy movies ever created.
“All of Me” may not be the best of these comedies (I suspect “Tootsie” is, although with a whole lot less Charles Durning it would have been even better) but it has the funniest 10 minutes of screen time since the movies started talking.
And the most unpromising premise. Lily Tomlin is a sickly rich person who wishes her soul to be transferred to someone else’s body just at the moment of her death. Richard Libertini is the guru who will make it all happen; Steve Martin is the skeptical lawyer who is working for Tomlin. Complications ensue. Tomlin dies, her soul moves to an odd brass bowl, which is then knocked out a window. The bowl hits Martin on the head, and suddenly Lily Tomlin is inhabiting the body of Steve Martin (with Steve Martin still in it).
A power struggle ensues. The right side (Tomlin) does not wish to cooperate with the left side (Martin). Both personalities are angry, confused, inept. It is an astonishing illusion: Your brain knows that it’s only watching Steve Martin hurling his limbs around, but nothing you see on-screen confirms that. His left foot moves bravely outward, intent on getting back to his office; his right foot remains glued to the ground. His right hand clings to a parking meter desperately; his left hand just as desperately tries to pry it off. All the while, he is engaged in a furious argument with himself, by turns sarcastic, seductive, wheedling, raging. Occasionally he becomes aware of his surroundings and attempts to pretend that his behavior is some form of transient muscular disorder, but just as quickly he plunges back into debate, snapping off cruel quips and then slapping himself, throwing himself at doorways while dragging one leg behind as though he had an angry terrier attached to his ankle, spinning suddenly on his heel like a balletic infantryman, walking three steps and screaming “no!” and whirling around again.
The rest of the movie is a folly of schizophrenia and narcissism, as the two people inside the same body slowly fall in love with each other through a barrage of plot twists and one-liners. It is sweet-natured to the end, even letting the villain off the hook, and the very last sequence, as the credits roll, concludes in a perfect coda of ungainly joy.