Saturday, April 25, 2009

This Product Might Be Hazardous To Your Size

Close to thirty years after it was first released to theaters in 1981, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WOMAN remains MIA on DVD but lives on playing in the cable TV dead of night and in the memories of all those who remember seeing the props on the Universal Studios tour. I can vaguely remember enjoying it at the time but looking at it again didn’t really do much for me. Since this Lily Tomlin vehicle seems designed for her by partner Jane Wagner, who’s credited with the script, I’m trying to draw a line between it and her disastrous dramatic vehicle MOMENT BY MOMENT but I can’t find much of a link beyond how they both seem designed to do everything possible to display the talents of the star as much as possible. This one just happens to be more in her wheelhouse. But it has very few genuine laughs, there’s not much charm and it never gets into any kind of rhythm. It’s the sort of film whose idea of a big laugh line is someone saying the word “shit”. Granted, I bet I laughed at that then, but things change.

Giving Richard Matheson’s original INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN novel a “Suggested by” credit, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WOMAN focuses on Pat Kramer an average wife and mother in suburban southern California living in a development known as “Tasty Acres” whose continued exposure to the products ad exec husband Vance (Charles Grodin) brings home results in her suddenly beginning to shrink. As she rapidly decreases in size, she becomes more and more famous while Vance’s boss Dan (Ned Beatty) puts pressure on him to keep her from revealing the reasons for her shrinking. What she doesn’t really know is that Dan and a group of scientists, all connected to the Organization for World Management, have a plan to use her condition for their own diabolical means.

Bathed in pastel colors and harsh diffusion, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WOMAN wants to be a biting satire of American consumerism circa 1981 but the world it presents is so ugly and frenetic that it’s never particularly pleasant to sit through, let alone funny in any real way. No one is particularly likable including Tomlin’s bland heroine (her kids in particular are total brats) and any satire of consumer culture it’s going for feels half-baked, with the film just playing the annoying “Galaxy Glue” jingle multiple times including over the end credits and none of it is as clever as it seems to think it is. Considering the unreal tone it’s going for, it would also make sense if only fake products were seen throughout, but real ones do pop up here and there. So much is constantly going on in each scene but little of it ever registers except for maybe the occasional bit—for whatever reason, seeing a few corporate bad guys off to the side in one scene playing backgammon made me smile, but it’s just a brief moment that the movie barely seems to notice. The film was the directorial debut of the dreaded Joel Schumacher who already had a number of screenwriting credits at this point. He keeps things moving but even at only 88 minutes it feels longer than it is and as a director he doesn’t display much of an eye for comedy or wit, with some labored bits like Pat trying to do housework by herself or getting drenched with champagne during a business dinner just going on and on. Some elements, like the Spanish-speaking maid, haven’t dated so well either for reasons of their own. One thing that did occur to me was that the combination of social satire, slapstick and certain actors makes me think that Joe Dante would have managed to make all this work. INNERSPACE comes to mind and not even just for the shrinking element. Of course, this early in the 80s he wasn’t yet on the studio radar and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was really Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin who were fully in charge of the project anyway. The one flawless element of the film is everything connected with showing Tomlin shrinking, both the visual effects as well as the various sets and props used to depict it. It’s hard to imagine any of this stuff done better today with CGI. It’s like movies are past making this sort of thing actually impressive anymore.

Part of the idea of making this a full vehicle for Lily Tomlin extends to her playing multiple roles—she also has the supporting role of neighbor Judith Beasley along with making a quick cameo as Ernestine—but she just seems the wrong personality for this Peter Sellers-type approach, or at least she does in this film. So no one thinks otherwise, I generally think that Lily Tomlin is just fantastic and an asset to anything she appears in but her lead role as Pat Kramer is designed to be so much an Everywoman that she never gets to project much of any sort of personality. As a result, it just seems like a waste of her talents. It occurs to me the she never seems to have had a vehicle that was perfectly matched to her comic talents and her most successful roles, from THE WEST WING to her films with Altman, have been more serious or at least has involved material conceived by others. There are a number of good actors in here who are ideal for this type of comedy ensemble—Grodin, Beatty, Henry Gibson, Elizabeth Wilson, John Glover—but they’re all pretty much wasted. Grodin’s best moment is a quick shot of him deadpan, reading a book entitled “Marriage Without Sex.” The one person who really does get a chance to make an impression is the criminally underrated Mark Blankfield (no screen credits since ’03, but you’d know him if you saw him) as a lab assistant and he was just about the only person onscreen who managed to get me to so much as smile for more than a few seconds at a time. For some reason I particularly like when he sings a few bars of “Swinging on a Star” while doing his rounds. Rick Baker plays Sidney the Gorilla, billed as “Richard A. Baker”, deserving every bit of praise possible for the performance and doesn’t look all that different than he did when he played King Kong. Mike Douglas, playing himself in a talk show segment, actually does get a laugh when he rudely interrupts Tomlin to go to commercial and it’s to his credit that he was willing to play such a moment.

I haven’t seen the original movie for years, but my vague recollections are that THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WOMAN displays a surprising amount of fidelity to the source material. At the very least, it makes a few attempts at serious commentary within a satirical context about where American culture was going at this point, even if it isn’t very successful in this regard. It’s harmless enough and the effects are definitely worth mentioning but ultimately there’s so little charm that it squashes any laughs that it might be going for. It’s no MOMENT BY MOMENT (of course, nothing is) on the bad movie scale but considering it’s one of the few real star vehicles we ever got from Lily Tomlin it does seem like it should probably be remembered as a disappointment.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

TRUE FUN FACT: John Landis was originally supposed to direct this (hence the prominence of the gorilla and Rick Baker), but was pulled off it by Universal and assigned to THE BLUES BROTHERS instead.