Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For July, we honor the chameleonic genre-bending of the recently-passed Joel Schumacher, who embraced camp thrills and pulp trash in equal measure. Read the rest of our coverage here.
When it came out in 1981, The Incredible Shrinking Woman received an indifferent-at-best reception from both critics and the public alike and made so little impact on the collective consciousness that those without a keen interest in misfired fantasy-comedy cinema of that era may not realize that it even exists. This is probably as it should be—if it weren’t for the curiosity value of legendary comic Lily Tomlin in the title role and the fact that it marked the theatrical directorial debut of the late Joel Schumacher, it would be even more of an obscurity than it already is.
Though the end result is largely disappointing, the ideas behind it are undeniably promising. And there are some subtextual elements on display that become more intriguing with the passage of time — though it’s more fun to ponder what might have been than to actually sit through it.
A remake/send-up of The Shrinking Man, Richard Matheson’s acclaimed 1956 science-fiction novel that was the basis for the classic film version The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), The Incredible Shrinking Woman was conceived in the late ‘70s as a comedic vehicle for Lily Tomlin, already one of the most celebrated comic voices of her generation. The screenplay was written by Tomlin’s longtime partner (and future wife) Jane Wagner, and there was a time early on when she might have directed as well. However, after the disastrous release of Wagner’s directorial debut, the Tomlin/-John Travolta romantic drama Moment by Moment (1978), there was little chance that Universal was going to let that happen.
Instead, John Landis, then the hottest director in Hollywood thanks to the success of National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), was hired to take over. The film began shooting in February 1979 and then shut down a few days later as Landis left the project, supposedly over budget issues. (The climax of the film reportedly involved a massive chase sequence through the streets of Washington D.C.) Six months later, production resumed with Schumacher, who had gone from designing costumes for films like Sleeper (1973) to writing the screenplays for Sparkle (1976), Car Wash (1976), and The Wiz (1978) and directing a couple of TV movies, at the helm.
Tomlin plays Pat Kramer, a happy housewife who seems to have it all—she lives in a suburban paradise known as Tasty Meadows with her doting ad-exec husband Vance (Charles Grodin), two reasonably adorable kids, a Hispanic maid who does dusting and light comedy relief and next-door neighbors who always drop in uninvited to chat. Between her seemingly endless trips to the grocery store and Vance always bringing his work home with him in the form of new products or jingles), it feels as if Pat’s entire life is one extended television commercial. Even the manager of the local supermarket is played by Dick Wilson, better known as TV commercial character Mr. Whipple.
It’s at this point that Pat is convinced she’s growing smaller. Vance dismisses this at first, but it is true and she continues to grow smaller each day, gradually at first and then more rapidly. She undergoes tests at the Kleinman Institute under Dr. Eugene Nortz (Henry Gibson) and Dr. Ruth Ruth (Elizabeth Wilson) and the results are astonishing: due to some combination of the detergents, solvents, perfumes, chemicals, additives, and pollution, she is indeed shrinking. And she’ll continue to unless they can determine what combination of elements caused it.
[I]t’s more fun to ponder what might have been than to actually sit through it.
For those who haven’t seen it before, I imagine that this setup sounds pretty promising in its potential for cheerfully lacerating social satire. After all, in the hands of unabashedly feminist voices like Wagner and Tomlin, the idea of using Matheson’s potent premise to illustrate how patriarchal, consumer-driven cultures shrink women’s potential has promise. Sure, throw in some special effects and sight gags to help the other stuff go down, but as a film like the Tomlin-costarring 9 to 5 (1980) demonstrated, the combination of goofy comedy and an unabashedly pro-feminist agenda could score with critics and audiences alike.
Unfortunately, 9 to 5 came out only a month or so before the release of The Incredible Shrinking Woman, long after it was evidently decided to eliminate the social satire and transform the film into a live-action cartoon. Instead, as Pat continues to shrink, she becomes a media sensation—complete with an appearance on Mike Douglas’s talk show—and even gets an offer to have dolls made in her likeness, seemingly the ultimate tribute for someone who has embraced the consumerist lifestyle.
Before all of this can happen (but alas, after the Mike Douglas appearance), Pat is kidnapped by a shady cabal that includes the Kleinman Institute, Vance’s sleazy boss (Ned Beatty playing what was known back then as “the Ned Beatty part”) and other mysterious figures who want to use Pat as part of a plan to shrink the population and rule the world. While the world thinks that she’s perished in a bizarre kitchen accident, she’s kidnapped by the bad guys, eventually escapes and exposes them with the help of an addled lab assistant and, perhaps inevitably, a super-smart gorilla named Sydney (played by makeup genius Rick Baker, presumably a holdover from Landis’s tenure).
If reading the last paragraph was a deflating experience for anyone hoping that The Incredible Shrinking Woman might live up to its considerable promise, try watching it unfold on the screen. (Protip: You shouldn’t.) The provocative premise is almost completely kicked to the side, so much so that, when Pat finally gets her moment to be heard, her speech literally has her saying, “You don’t need me to tell you about the problems of the world,” before degenerating into mealy-mouthed nonsense.
Instead, we get a lot of special effects of varying quality and silly sight gags that seem to have been trucked in from another movie that had no use for them. (Though the bit where Pat and Sydney trip up their pursuers with a ton of banana peels was goofy enough to make me laugh). In a last-ditch effort to liven things up, Tomlin also plays a secondary role as Pat’s always-present next-door neighbor, and has an additional cameo as her famous telephone operator character Ernestine. These frantic maneuvers try to build up a comedic head of steam, but come across more like flop sweat.
Even in this mishmash, there are some good ideas and concepts floating around. While it becomes painfully clear that Schumacher was in over his head with this as his big-screen debut—he doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of how to let a scene build in terms of comedy or large-scale effects sequences—he does manage to score some decent laughs from the stylized look of the film, clearly inspired from the TV commercials it’s always aping. (The color scheme is especially amusing, as everything in Pat’s suburban paradise is swathed in ghastly pastel colors of a hue rarely seen outside of a package of Necco wafers.)
The film also takes easily to a queer reading, Pat’s journey serving as a symbolic take on coming out of the closet. Considering that the key players in this film—Tomlin, Schumacher and Wagner—were all gay, it does add a certain resonance to the material that probably would not have existed with other people in those roles.
Although The Incredible Shrinking Woman was clearly intended to make Lily Tomlin a full-fledged movie star, not even the concurrent success of 9 to 5 could help overcome its middling reception. It would be three years before she would appear in her next film, All of Me (1984).
In subsequent years, Tomlin would turn up in a number of movies but always in co-starring or supporting roles. She would not be the unquestionable front-and-center of another film until her celebrated turn in the indie comedy-drama hit Grandma (2015). Schumacher would go on to do the poorly received D.C. Cab (1983) before making a string of box-office hits in the ‘80s and ‘90s that included St. Elmo’s Fire (1985), The Lost Boys (1987), Falling Down (1993) and Batman Forever (1995). Wagner would continue to collaborate with Tomlin on a number of highly-regarded one-woman shows, but would never again have another screenplay produced.
The Incredible Shrinking Woman is, to put it kindly, a bit of a misfire that offers the promise of something really special that it largely proves to be incapable of delivering. Yet, even today, the subjects that it deals with—feminism, gender roles, environmental issues, and the perils of a consumer culture run amok—resonate strongly to this day.