ONE-PERSON movies, which spotlight the skills of a single artist - usually filmed in a theater with a live audience - are handy vehicles for bringing onstage entertainment to a wide public. Performers as varied as Richard Pryor and Bette Midler have brought their acts to the screen in solo films. And occasionally a maverick artist brings a new twist to the format, as when Sandra Bernhard assaulted stage and cinema conventions in her postmodern "Without You I'm Nothing."The latest examples of the solo-movie breed, featuring Eric Bogosian and Lily Tomlin, resemble Mr. Pryor's explosive monologues in their insistence on addressing today's social problems. In other ways, the movies are as different as can be. They both have something to say, but Mr. Bogosian gets his message across with a lot more style, wit, and bravado than Ms. Tomlin manages to muster. Based on a recent stage work, Bogosian's film is called "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll," a title guaranteed to grab attention as readily as a tabloid headline. Don't get the notion that Bogosian glorifies any of the above, however. In his view, preoccupations with such commodities - especially when they're celebrated and peddled by the culture industry - are a massive obstacle to constructive thought and action. This is why his characters include a drug-damaged pop star, a barfly overflowing with self-adulation, a subway-car hustler, and an executive who sees love and business in the same manipulative terms. Bogosian plays them (and others) with chilling conviction, never failing to reveal the sad shortcomings that plague them and the society that's shaped their attitudes. Alone on a bare stage throughout the film, he demonstrates the versatility and energy that have distinguished much of his theatrical work ove r the years. Since these qualities didn't come through so effectively in "Talk Radio," the comparatively conventional movie he starred in two years ago, it appears that the stage is Bogosian's natural habitat. It's good to discover that his onstage work translates well to the screen, even if his new picture does begin to drag in its last half-hour. The movie is often raw in its language and blunt in its attitudes, but it's all in the cause of sincerely felt social criticism - something most movies, polite or impolite , don't provide us with all that often. John McNaughton, whose credits include the searing "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," has directed the film impersonally but effectively. "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe" was written for Lily Tomlin by Jane Wagner, based on her script for Tomlin's popular Broadway show. Tomlin plays a range of characters as broad as Bogosian's, from a spunky homeless person to a fashionable woman who can't stop thinking about her hairdo. The movie won't let her build these characters by herself, though, with the fundamental tools of skill and imagination. Instead the filmmakers give her constant help she doesn't need - zinging her from place to place, plunking her into one costume after another, and providing nonstop punctuation to skits and scenes that would work better if Tomlin were left to her own devices. The result is frantic when it should be funny, exhausting when it should be amusing. And, how did director John Bailey, one of the most talented cinematographers in Hollywood, come up with such unattractive lighting and framing? He's capable of much better work - and so, despite this sorry piece of evidence, is the star of the show.
"Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll" is rated * for strong language, and for drug- and sex-related dialogue. "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe" is rated PG-13.