The Incredible Shrinking Woman

Hootworthy mixture of anti-commercial screed, horror film, and way-too-broad comedy
Joel Schumacher
Lily Tomlin, Charles Grodin, Ned Beatty
The Setup: 
Woman begins to shrink because of all the household products she uses, in this anti-commercial, feminist inversion of <strong>The Incredible Shrinking Man.</strong>

I loved this movie. While I don't really care for broad comedy, for some reason I do love broad satire of the variety now commonly found on South Park, and this film really came through in that respect. It is also so hootworthily bizarre in every way and really is worth seeking out.

The movie opens with quite a few sequences of Lily Tomlin getting doused with products. The first finds the car with her and the kids in it filling up with green fumes, while Lily screams "It's not that bad!" This reminded me both of the similar scene in Safe, and also the creepy vibe in eXistenZ of how we as consumers have grown inured to all the terribly strange and sometimes horrific aspects of our common products and culture. Soon after, she and her family are all stuck together with glue, then she is doused with perfume. It's a little disturbing to see her covered with all these products. but that's part of the story. One problem the film has, however, is that it's just impossible to accept Lily Tomlin as a chirpy suburban housewife. Everything she says and does just has that ironic tinge that is, of course, what everyone loves about her, but also kind of keeps one from really engaging in the situation of the movie, as Lily's tone keeps pointing toward the satiric overtones, rather than letting one just sink into the movie.

Oh, and in here is a wonderful sequence in which Lily plays against herself as her prim next-door-neighbor, who comes over to sell a bunch of Amway-like products. She did this so well that I wasn't even aware that the other woman was also Lily until my friend pointed it out.

Anyway, so it seems that Lily is shrinking BECAUSE of the many household products she is using. Around this point the film starts to take up the horror tone of its inspiration, The Incredible Shrinking Man. There are a number of somewhat disturbing sequences, including one in which Lily wanders into a room full of huge toys [one of which urinates in her face], and the worst of them, in which Lily falls into the sink garbage disposal. Her screams are drowned out by the music the oblivious housekeeper is playing, and there's real suspense created as it looks like Lily is going to be ground up with the trash.

By the way, I got a total kick out of Maria Smith as the Latina housekeeper Concepcion. Sure, she's a stereotype, but she is just so, so funny. Halfway through the movie, when Lily is too small to be a presence in the household, Concepcion starts wearing these shiny neon hotpants and dancing around the house, oblivious to her housework or any of her responsibilities. Keep an eye out for how she changes again toward the end of the movie.

This movie is fairly brutal in terms of how Lily's husband and children completely turn on her [reminding me of Kafka's The Metamorphosis]. He husband gets a late moral redemption, but I love how the kids remain completely hedonistic little terrors throughout, ready to turn on their own mother without a thought. At last, some realism in a movie!

No matter how much of a mess this is, it stays funny and veers wildly between satire, horror, and comedy. UNTIL the last third. I was considering modifying my first 2/3rds theory to state that the more hard-hitting or outrageous a movie is in the first 2/3rd, the more it has to backtrack from that intensity in the last 3rd, and this film would be good support for that, as the comedy gets way too broad [when you've got a guy in an ape suit who is supposed to be a major character, the comedy is getting too broad], with all this horrible keystone kops komedy, apes giving people the finger, shitty stuff like that, that completely deflates the energy of the movie. But from there it's not far until the end, and it's worth finishing just to see how it turns out.


The following week I watched The Incredible Shrinking Man, and was surprised how much of that movie survived intact into this one in one form or another, such as the man falling down into the basement rather than into the sink disposal.

The guy in 'Man' was a typical 50s sexist jerk-the movie opens with a long conversation in which he demands that his wife fetch him a beer-and one can see how this could inspire making a feminist retelling. Though what strikes me about the feminist retelling is what a passive wuss she is in 'Woman,' and by extension how little women's rights had come by 1981. In this movie she starts off as a passive, apologetic homemaker, throughout the movie her husband and children betray her and she never calls their attention to their behavior, her neighbors and the public are abusive to her and she just takes it, and by the end she just accepts what happening to her without a complaint or protest. It is only after her size is restored at the end, and there is a hint that she will wreak some revenge by becoming large, but that occurs by accident and through no action she takes on her own behalf. Feminist retelling?

I think it also shows the degree to which one must go to please audiences [by 1981] that Lily HAS to be restored to her normal size by the end of the movie, rather than just to continue shrinking as the hero of 'Man' does.

Should you watch it: 

Yes! It's a total hoot. Just don't expect too much in the way of "quality." Whatever THAT is.

SAFE can be seen as a serious version of this movie, with a woman [Julianne Moore] becoming "allergic" to modern life and all its attendant products, and also with a subtle gay sensibility.

THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN is the movie that this film is based on, and makes for an interesting comparison piece, aside from being a great 50s sci-fi classic in its own right.