Home Video Hovel: The Incredible Shrinking Woman, by Alexander Miller
The Incredible Shrinking Woman feels akin to the post-new Hollywood era revisionists a la Paul Bartel, Joe Dante, and John Landis (who was originally attached to direct), but Joel Schumacher’s debut feature paired the enigmatic quirkiness of Lily Tomlin with Jane Wagner’s witty script to yield a charming, close-to-brilliant film.
These three and a well-rounded cast including Charles Grodin, Ned Beatty, and Henry Gibson lend something to the film that makes the satire glow. Everyone involved is having fun with the material and whatever the message might be, it isn’t going to get in the way of making an entertaining movie.
We’re introduced to Pat Kramer (Tomlin, in one of three roles), the devoted mother to an incredibly loud but sweet brood of kids and the loving wife to her product-peddling adman husband Vance, played by Charles Grodin, who is, as always, a fun performer to see in action. The Kramers are settled in the pastel-steeped suburban landscape of the early 80s; everything is bright and artificial and everywhere you turn, there are consumer goods. For every Necco wafer color-coded piece of kitchenware, furniture, or appliance, there’s a “wonder product” that will make your car shine and your floor glow and life is all the better for it. That is unless you’re Pat Kramer, because, as the title might suggest it’s this chemical cocktail that leads to our titular character’s expected shrinking.
The atomic age was the author of Jack Arnold and Richard Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man. Wagner and Schumacher do more than repurposing the narrative; they paint consumer culture as the toxic culprit and, of course, this is The Incredible Shrinking Woman. Matheson’s script burrowed a bit deeper beneath the skin of B-movie folderol, making the character not only suffer from physical but also emotional duress by prodding the protagonist’s feelings of emasculation and making the everyday habitat more menacing. Wagner does an interesting flip in tone and (obviously) gender by making Tomlin’s character the victim of domestic consumer products and manages a tastefully jolly play on the theme of sex. While we quickly sympathize with Pat’s plight as we see a devoted mother limited in interacting with her children, some of the broader visual gags grow weary, and the film falters when the bits carry on too long get too loud.
However, the film works on a playful level because it’s a lighter satire that doesn’t succumb to being mean-spirited but has a point to make regarding consumer culture and chemical intervention. The most reliable card in the deck that is The Incredible Shrinking Woman and that is, of course, Lily Tomlin. Throughout the entirety of this lively feature, Tomlin has the energy to match, or even surpass, the tone of the film. She carries an enigmatic charm that enlivens each scene. Even when the film warbles, her energy and physical commitment to the role is commendable. Partly in that they get as much mileage from the farcical shrunken person gags as they can, and some of it feels punishing to Tomlin when she’s being dunked in champagne, falling into garbage disposals, getting grappled by toys and by the time she’s quarantined you feel bad for her as an actress (and her character). But there’s an ever-present air that the cast is having a good time realizing the material and it certainly lends a charming atmosphere to the overall import of the film.
Tomlin was already an established comedic presence and, thankfully, the creative partnership between Tomlin, Wagner, and Schumacher had the insight to include a few of her characters from her earlier career-shaping work on stage and her appearances on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. So seeing Ernestine, the persnickety telephone operator, and Judith Beasley, Pat’s neighbor, the product smart Illinois native is a bonus.
Lily Tomlin more or less makes the movie, which is no wonder as she’s simply delightful. And when you spend a good amount of screen time with Rick Baker in a gorilla suit, that’s an accolade to wear proudly.
The Incredible Shrinking Woman isn’t a perfect movie but it’s a fun one that delivers an excellent visual sense, Schumacher has the rare kind of energy that resides in special-case directorial debuts, and he blasts it all over the indicating that he knew how to fill a screen. The standout sequence is a medical montage featuring a myriad of split screens and punchy visual effects as Pat is undergoing a battery of tests. If hindsight criticism is worth a damn it would have been, could have been a much different career for Joel Schumacher if he had continued to collaborate with more playful and insightful minds such as Tomlin and Wagner, I guess we’ll always have the jingoistic bullshit of Falling Down, oh well!
The Shout! Factory Select Blu-ray offers a handful of amusing perks, featuring interviews with Tomlin, Wagner, and director Schumacher and the 1080p image restoration brightens up this amusing flick that will hopefully enjoy a renaissance thanks to this release.