Early in the year, Steve Martin took a swing with the comedy “The Lonely Guy“, and he whiffed it. Lucky for us you are not out after a single strike or we might have been denied the pleasures of this out of body comedy directed by Carl Reiner and again starring Steve Martin. This ninety minute film is not deep, it is not shot in an innovative way, and at times it is a little too silly. It does however contain one of the great performances of the year. A bigger contrast in styles to F. Murray Abraham’s Salierei you are not going to find.
Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin go all in to give us a slapstick comedy with a little bit of heart, but mostly a whole bunch of laughs. It’s Martin’s physical deftness that elevates this movie to the status of one of the winners of 1984.
The week that this opened, seven of the top ten movies were films that had played in the summer for weeks. Right behind this was “The Evil That Men Do” but bubbling in third place, 16 weeks after it opened was “Ghostbusters“. As you can tell, it was a different world. This was a successful release but in comparison to the other films from the summer, it’s final box office take would be moderate. It ranks in the middle of the pack among Martin’s films, but it is way ahead in quality of those films at the top of his box office take like, “Cheaper by the Dozen” or “Bringing Down the House”.
Martin is Roger Cobb, a lawyer celebrating his 38th birthday and unhappy with his life. He is given the task of amending the will of an important and wealthy client, Edwina Cutwater played by Lily Tomlin. It seems Miss Cutwater wants to leave her estate to the stableman’s daughter Terry Hoskins (Victoria Tennant, the future ex Mrs. Martin). Edwina has arranged for a mystic from another part of the world (but still played by an American actor, Richard Libertini) to transfer her spirit from the dying body she has struggled in all her life, to the youthful and vibrant Terry’s body. Cobb of course thinks she’s a loon.
When he angrily leaves her house, Roger may very well be risking his career. Back at the office, the whole crew involved in the plan have appeared to get the will finalized. Of course nothing is going to go as planned or else we would not have a movie. Right there in the office, Edwina dies and the attempted transference of souls, which first requires that the spirit be deposited in a magical bowl, takes place. Naturally, the bowl falls out the window, and conks Cobb on the head, and thus the foolishness begins.
Now if this sounds too silly for you, then you can skip watching it, but if you do, you will miss Steve Martin doing a pantomime, slapstick miracle of a comic performance. Once Edwina’s spirit enters Rogers body, they duel for control over his actions, mannerisms and speech. All of this is done by Martin himself. He changes up his voice, divides his body in half and manages to convince us that he is not all there and that Edwina is with him. The very first sequence where Martin has to sell this concept is on the street below the offices of the law firm. The two souls wrestle with the direction his body is going to take and Edwina notices she is dominate on one side while Roger seems able to control the other. This two minute scene is worth your investment in the whole movie. It is a tour de force of comedy timing and concept. As Martin’s one leg drags him forward, the other pulls him back. It is as if he was doing the “moonwalk” backwards and horizontally.
Several times in the next hour, Edwina possesses the whole body and Martin has to convey a woman with the gestures, posture and walk that he displays. It may sometimes seem stereotypical, but it is complete and Martin sells it for all he can. Edwina is supposed to be feminine and of course she has been an invalid all of her life, so it is not too big a stretch to imagine that the exaggerated waving of the hands or sashaying hip swivel would mirror such a woman. These behaviors usually come out at the most inopportune time as Roger is trying to represent his boss in a divorce proceeding and function as a lover at various moments. Another early scene in which the awkwardness of the situation is taken advantage of for comic effect is a visit to the Men’s room. As Martin carries on a dialogue with himself in two voices and persona’s, he has to also manage to use the facility with Edwina taking charge of some of the technical elements of using a urinal.
One of the ways that Reiner shows us the presence of Edwina is by making her visible to us in a mirror. A sort of reverse vampire effect. It gives Martin a human being to play against every few minutes and it grounds us to the concept of a shared body a bit more easily. It’s still a silly concept but it works.
In the courtroom scene, there is a long period where Roger is asleep inside and Edwina has to operate his body as if he were a man. It is less effective than the opposite portrayal because it relies on Edwina’s impression of what a man is. She has Cobb, talking tough like a guy in a Cagney movie, and spitting and scratching himself in the nether regions. It’s funny but much more obvious than the other role reversal. This sequence foreshadows “Liar, Liar” by a dozen years and I have no doubt that Jim Carrey was influenced in his film by this section of “All of Me”.
Cobb and Terry become romantically involved, but sex with a third person in your head appears to be a bit awkward. In an uncomfortable menage a trios, Roger and Edwina have to manage their fantasies and do so with another person trying to figure out what is going on. So there is a sex comedy built into the out of body comedy as well. This is exploited in a couple of scenes and both of them work pretty well as they still manage to be funny without becoming raunchy. It’s lucky for Cobb that the insults that Edwina is tossing at her surrogate body are interpreted as dirty talk.
The one element of the picture that is an uncomfortable fit for me is the use of the mystic from the east for comedy punchlines. There is a needless sequence where the holy man, staying in a modern hotel, is so unfamiliar with a toilet, that he believes that the ringing phone is connected to the flushing of the bowl. It is disconnected from the rest of the story and it feels a little culturally insensitive, which sounds ridiculous in a movie based on swapping bodies. The character played by Richard Libertini is reduced to mimicking sounds that the other characters make because he does not speak English. At the penultimate complication of the film, he is in a barn, with the bowl, a horse and the other characters and it feels over the top. It is not quite as over the top as the later climax that takes place inside of Edwina/Terry’s mansion. There we get guns, flashlights, blind burglars, and middle age couples in their underwear. The slapstick here has little to do with the central performance and it feels like the idea has run out of steam and they are looking for an exit. A few too many sequences like this keep the movie from being a complete classic but it still passes the laugh test. You should be getting a good chuckle every five minutes or so and a loud guffaw every ten minutes. “All of Me” meets those standards consistently. So with a performance that was not nominated for an Academy award but which did receive Golden Globe nominations for both Martin and Tomlin, and for which Martin was named Best Actor by the NY Film Critics and the National Society of Film Critics, “All of Me” is still a treat that film fans of 1984 should treasure.