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Long time stand-up comedian Steve Martin burst onto movie screens in 1979’s The Jerk, an absurd bit of lunacy that propelled him into fame and began a slew of ever-evolving comedies that have since come to define his career. A gifted satirist and writer, his work as an actor is best remembered for his many character’s everyman quality coping in a world gone zany. His gift for timing and physical comedy have shaped his film personas and no film in his long list of contributions showcases this more this remarkable portrayal of man literally possessed in 1984’s All of Me.
Martin plays Roger Cobb, a middling lawyer at a firm he’s been working at for 11 years. He wants to become a partner but it is his distracting love of music that leaves him on the fringe, his membership in a jazz band seen as non-committal to his job by the other partners. On Cobb’s 38th birthday, after his girlfriend Peggy (Madolyn Smith) buys him an African tribal gravestone, he decides he needs to get serious. He tells his boss he wants in that he has quit the band and this evening . . . he’s going out and buying a vest for his suit. This goes over very well.
With that attitude, he’s assigned to the case of Edwina Cutwater (Lily Tomlin), an extremely wealthy woman who has been in various states of ill since childhood, having a weak heart that’s left her bedridden. Now, she is told she has mere days to live and that her time has finally come. A difficult, self-centered woman pampered her own life, she is not loved by her staff, who seem eager to see her off. Edwina wishes to throw a party for a unique ceremony. See, Edwina doesn’t plan on actually dying. No, she plans to have her passed-on soul transferred to a new healthy body, that of Terry Hoskins (Victoria Tennant), a beautiful young woman (and her stable master’s daughter) who is willing to let herself become the host and allow her own soul to enter the universe. Cutwater wants Roger to amend the will so Terry, who will become Edwina again, will be the sole beneficiary of her entire estate. When Roger hears this, he calmly asks one question: “Is everyone here bananas?”
Without giving away details, an accident during the transference has Edwina’s soul falling into Roger instead and the results leave his body in possession of two people. He retains control of the left side while Edwina takes the right. Needless to say, physically portraying this bond is a challenge, but leave it up to Martin to make it not only very funny to watch, but oddly compelling. Martin genuinely seems split in the middle by two opposing forces, as the two personalities contest each other for control of one body. The right side adopts an obvious feminine stance, with extended fingers and graceful gait while the left lumbers along like a, well, man. Putting them together is a spastic concoction of spasms that amazingly enough, is actually easy to follow and supremely funny.
Like walking. The mere act of it becomes a spectacle as they must time their steps, and Martin effortlessly maintains the female/male division illusion running the entire time. It’s an inspired bit of physical acting that transcends merely moving one’s limbs. Martin himself does seem possessed. The beauty of the of initial possession moment is how it extends to the next scene where Roger proclaims he needs to use the restroom and since she has injured his hand in a tussle as they fought for control, it is up to her to take “The Little Fireman” out to relieve “them.” It’s hysterical. Tap. Tap.
Directed by Carl Reiner, whose own catalog of films is a cavalcade of comedy, All of Me is a surprisingly sophisticated one, with a deep character study hiding under a layer of rich physical humor. And while the story is solid and the supporting characters on the mark, is it Martin’s one-man tour-de-force that makes this arguably of the best in his filmography. Harking back to the pratfalls of Jerry Lewis and Dick Van Dyke, Martin fine tunes the slapstick to be more than just sight gags. Think about the complexities of what he is doing and even, if you can spare some personal embarrassment, attempt to duplicate his actions (be sure the window blinds are down), and you can begin to appreciate the enormous talent that actually possesses him. Watch how he maintains this split physical persona throughout, and how even the subtle movements make such powerful impact in demonstrating that fact. From a visit to a church pew to a hilarious sexual encounter with Terry, Roger/Edwina is a ferociously funny power struggle unlike any other on film. It surely influenced a number of future comics in movies, and deserves to be seen and experienced more by those who have yet to experience how good it truly is. All of Me is a masterpiece of physical comedy and the best example of why Steve Martin is a genius at his craft.