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Retro Review 1981: The Incredible Shrinking Woman

Posted by Thurston McQ on Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Incredible Shrinking Woman (Original Release Date: 30 January 1981)

There never was a happier home for the re-sized creature feature than the fifties. So many of the classics of the genre (if it is a genre) were released in that decade: Them! (1954), Tarantula (1955), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), and the Abbott-less Lou Costello comedy, The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959). (For the fetishists out there: included in The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock is a scene where Costello's character showers his giantess with an elephant hose.) These movies occasionally carried an agenda -- more often than not, the agenda had to do with how we ought to be more careful with technology in the atomic age -- though they weren't necessarily always “message” movies. Many of them existed just to exploit the spectacle, or to present us with the novelty of humans interacting with wrong-sized stuff.  Forced perspective, outsized sets and props, and film compositing were all on the cheaper end of the effects spectrum, and the promise of cheap effects got movies made with the snap of a finger in those days.

The best of these movies managed to deliver both the message and the adventure.  The one that managed both better than any other was arguably The Incredible Shrinking Man, adapted by Richard Matheson from his own novel. What sets it apart from the rest? It's probably a little too easy to say “Matheson” and be done with it, but I think he's a big (if not the biggest) part of it. He strikes a balance between the absurd and the earnest that helps him sell his idea. (I'd argue that this quality is part of what made his Twilight Zone episodes standouts among a series full of standouts.)

The Incredible Shrinking Woman credits Matheson, but it does little credit to his work. It isn't that fifties ideas can't work in an eighties world.  I think Honey, I Shrunk the Kids works, for example. No, The Incredible Shrinking Woman’s problem is one it develops independently of its source material -- or maybe in spite of it. It makes little effort to strike the balance between absurdity and earnestness. Instead, it flaunts the former while neglecting the latter. It's so self-conscious about its own absurdity, in fact, that it develops an in-your-face irony about it.

The movie does everything it can to assure the audience it is in on whatever joke it thinks the audience thinks it is telling. It bathes its set design and wardrobe choices in a range of Easter pastels, and it winks so hard and long at the viewer that the viewer begins to wonder if it doesn't have something in its eye. This is evident in both its writing, provided by Tomlin's longtime collaborator and life partner, Jane Wagner, and its direction, provided by Joel Schumacher. (Yes, the Joel Schumacher. Give the guy something like The Lost Boys or Falling Down to work with, and he'll craft it into a solid piece of work. Give him something like this or a Batman movie, and he'll do his damnedest to make sure you're looking him in the face as he jackhammers his tongue into the backside of his cheek.)

Together, Tomlin, Wagner, and Schumacher conspire to make a movie that works so hard to convince you it is familiar with the concept of postmodernism that it leaves you little to enjoy about it if you aren't in the mood to pat it on the back for being familiar with the concept of postmodernism. The movie becomes less about being a retelling of Matheson's story (the only shared plot element is a shrinking person) and more about co-opting somebody else's material to forward a personal agenda.

When that agenda appears to be alerting you to its own self-awareness, it's hard to find anything rewarding in it.

The Incredible Shrinking Woman opens with an abrasive voice on a loudspeaker trying to pitch a product while credits flash on a black screen, making what I am guessing is an intentional allusion to the opening of Nashville. (It also features three of Nashville's stars: Lily Tomlin, Ned Beatty, and Henry Gibson.) Why is it making this allusion? I don't know, and I don't think it does, either. I guess both movies share a self-awareness, and both have underlying messages about pop culture and consumerism.

At the same time, I don't feel Nashville is daring me to like it. I also feel like Nashville, despite its myriad characters and subplots, holds itself together fairly well. The Incredible Shrinking Woman is simply a mess. And proud of it, apparently.

I mention an underlying message about consumerism above.  I probably shouldn’t call it “underlying,” and I shouldn’t make it seem as though this is something I “picked up on,” or that it is a personal interpretation.  The movie hands you the message on a platter, and stops by on its way to neighboring tables to ask you how you’re enjoying each bite.  Concerning the consumerism message:

The main character, Pat Kramer (played by Tomlin), gets pitched a product in the opening scene as she's leaving a grocery store. Her husband (played the Charles Grodin Way by none other than Charles Grodin), it turns out, is a pitch man. Her best friend, also played by Tomlin, is some sort of a career Avon-like pitch woman. (Tomlin plays three characters in this. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's to make sure she's off screen as little as possible. One of those characters is Ernestine, the operator character she stole from Elaine May and played with some frequency on Laugh-In. Speaking of Tomlin's Laugh-In characters, don't be surprised if you see some heavy nods to Edith Ann once Pat starts getting small.) The movie features pitch after pitch after pitch, and even bothers to tell you this in so many words.

Consumerism features into how the Tomlin character ends up shrinking, too. Throughout the first twenty minutes, she comes into contact with a variety of different household chemicals. This happens in a series of escalating improbabilities whose increase in showiness is a clear indicator of how little the movie trusts the viewer to be able to connect its giant dots. Again, though, I get the sinking feeling it wants me to realize this. (It wants me to realize that it knows that I know that it knows, et cetera.)

So, anyway, she comes into contact with a bunch of chemicals, and she starts to shrink. (With new, improved Joker brand… I get a grin… AGAIN AND AGAIN!) Occasionally, Tomlin tells us how to feel about the ongoing transformation with a voice over that shows up without warning some ten minutes in, drops in again every five to ten minutes thereafter, and never quite feels natural.  I’d wager this is by design, just as I’d wager that what comes across as sloppy moralizing throughout the movie is sloppy moralizing by design.

When it’s suggested that some of the products her pitchman husband has introduced into the household are likely to be blamed for her transformation, he says, “But we helped name some of those products!”  When the mass media gets a hold of her story, we’re told, “Perhaps the petite Pat Kramer is a metaphor for the modern woman.  It is no secret that the role of the modern housewife has become increasingly less significant.”  Later on, the evening news asks of us, “Did she begin to shrink because no one noticed?  Did she begin to shrink because no one cared?  Did she begin to shrink because her role as homemaker was belittling when she looked at herself through society’s eyes?”  The rest of the movie is similarly leading.

The effects are usually passable, and I can respect the movie on some level for putting itself out there and aiming for a mass audience it almost surely had no hopes of attracting.  I couldn’t help but think of movies that do a lot of what it tries to do more capably than it does, however.  Ira Levin’s Stepford Wives comes to mind, as do Edward Scissorhands and The Truman Show.  Perhaps its closest analog would be David Byrne’s True Stories, a movie that people tend either to love or hate.  I neither love nor hate The Incredible Shrinking Woman, but I do find myself put off by it. I think what separates it from True Stories for me is what separates it from The Incredible Shrinking Man: it is utterly lacking in earnestness.   I suppose a movie isn’t required to be earnest to make me like it, but I do need something.  Whatever that something is, it appears it isn’t smugness or postmodernist posturing.

The Final Word: Recommended? No. You may want to see this if you’re a film student, or if you want to see where the first warning signs were with Joel Schumacher.

Standout Scene: The Kramers’ kids rightly surmise their parents are about to have sex, so they creep to the door and listen in.  Once it is clear to them that the sex has started, they smile and give one another the Ol’ Thumbs Up.  It was a truly bizarre moment.

Hey! I know that guy!: You know a whole bunch of these guys.  Ned Beatty’s the little piggy who went “Wee! Wee! Wee!” all the way down the riverbank in Deliverance.  Charles Grodin’s the guy who would be flirting with Ms. Piggy in The Great Muppet Caper just months after this movie was released.  Henry Gibson’s the guy who voiced some terrific, radiant, humble, thing-a-ma-jing-a-ma pig in the animated Charlotte’s Web.  (All right.  I’ll quit reaching for pig connections.)  Mark Blankfield’s the guy who ordered chicken sushi in Jekyll and Hyde… Together Again.  John Glover’s the guy who looks like Christian Bale’s dad, and who got Gremlin goo all over his nice suit in Gremlins 2.  Rick Baker, who plays a gorilla, is the guy who spent half his life performing or overseeing the performances of all the unconvincing man-in-suit gorillas not performed or overseen by Stan Winston.  (These days, he gets no competition for unconvincing man-in-suit gorillas from Stan Winston.)  Lily Tomlin’s that chick who doesn’t get along with David O. Russell as well as Marky Mark does.

Nostalgia Score: 2/10.  The Incredible Shrinking Woman is in its own warped world, and is so highly stylized that the only nostalgic twinges I got from it involved seeing actors I recognized from other movies.

Movie Score: 34/100

 

 

 

atrejub
Location:
Posts: 739
Posted: 8 years 45 weeks ago

Great review, Thursty.

I've noticed how in many of these reviews (and other front page posts) that words often get smashed together, but it was really noticeable in this one. Here is the postmodernist poem one gets by going through and fetching the fake-compounds:

andthe
bathesits
itwinks
ifit
youit
materialto
withan
Themain
acareer
yousee
meto
ofus
whatseparates
filmstudent
littlepiggy
oroverseen
stylizedthat

I was really thrown off by "bathesits."

The Swollen Goi...
Location:
Posts: 14343
Posted: 8 years 45 weeks ago

Ba, the sits!

Bat? He's its.

Jack S. Pharaoh
Location:
Posts: 2231
Posted: 8 years 45 weeks ago

Thurston McQ wrote:

Standout Scene: The Kramers’ kids rightly surmise their parents are about to have sex, so they creep to the door and listen in. Once it is clear to them that the sex has started, they smile and give one another the Ol’ Thumbs Up. It was a truly bizarre moment.

Yeah, I have a hard time seeing that happen in any household I would think of being at all "normal." There's probably been some molesting going on in that house.

Quasar
Location:
Posts: 7588
Posted: 8 years 45 weeks ago

The movie sounds painful. I'm glad Thursty watched it and not me.

Faster and faster, a nightmare we ride. Who'll take the reins when the miracle dies? Faster and faster till everything dies. Killing is our way of keeping alive. - Virgin Steele, Blood and Gasoline
The Swollen Goi...
Location:
Posts: 14343
Posted: 8 years 45 weeks ago

Thursty watches all the bad movies so you won't have to.  It's his idea of martyrdom.