Little Steps for Little Feet

The Incredible Shrinking Woman directed by Joel Schumacher at the Sack Pi Alley

WELCOME to Tasty Meadows, the middle-American MunchkinLand where the massive shopping center is the primary gathering place, where television-watching is the favorite pasttime, and where the sun-always shining--seems to reflect off everything, creating a glaring, ultra-gloss sheen on car fenders, carefully-groomed, Brillcreamed coiffures, and the flourescent polyester suits of the cheery citizenry. Here, America's real ordinary people great each other with advertising slogans: "Hi, you should try this new fertilizer on your lawn, it's terrific!" "How are you? Have you ever seen our boat shine like this? It's new Boatsheen!"; "Hey, Pat, how about a delicious weiner!"

Tasty Meadows is the setting of Lily Tomlin's latest vehicle The Incredible Shrinking Woman, a movie which, at its outset, promises to be a wicked satire of the TV age, filled with subtle humor, razor-sharp ridicule of American pop culture, and ingenious manipulation of every tiny comic detail of insipid domestic life. Unfortunately, Shrinking Woman--in its last half hour--reneges on its tacit deal with the audience, degenerating from incisive social satire to the silly comedy-adventure shenanigans of a Gene Wilder--Richard Pryor movie. Director Joel Schumacher and scriptwriter Jane Wagner let the film slowly slide into the quicksand of banality, and they rely on the immeasurable talents of their star to keep Shrinking Woman's head above the slime.

Lily Tomlin aspires to Chaplinesque heights of comic intuition and craftsmanship. As a movie performer. Tomlin has every other American comedian beat--the nebbishness of Woody Allen, the manic antics of Mel Brooks, and the shrill flightiness of Goldie Hawn cannot come close. Such comics lack Tomlin's mastery of the subtle comic flourish, the slight gesture or tiny twitch that not only reveals character but grabs the Big Laugh as well.

As Pat Kramer--the suburban housewife who finds herself shrinking as a result of over-exposure to the many mysterious chemicals in the innumerable deodorants, detergents, dishwashing liquids, hairsprays, etc., that she can't live without--Tomlin is this year's model of Suzy Homemaker. Struggling to maintain an efficient, happy household, Pat Kramer is the confused, vaguely liberated woman; her license plate reads MS. MOM, Well-versed in pop culture and self-improvement jargon, Pat wants to be the Complete Woman, the mother-lover-maid with her own personal space and identity and everything else Phil Donahue's guests tell her she should be. Of course, nobody really appreciates or notices Pat, until she begins to shrink and becomes an instant celebrity, with her own fan club and an appearance on the Mike Douglas Show. (Yes, Mike is on hand, middle-aged paunch and all, singing "little things mean a lot." There's a delicious sadistic joy in watching Douglas make an utter ass of himself and wondering if he knows the meaning of self-parody.)

Soon after the hilarious Douglas Show sequence, though, Shrinking Woman starts to deteriorate. Schumacher and Wagner cop out; their cruel and gleeful dissection of the tacky American bourgeoisie stops in mid-slice: there are no more scences of Pat and her hubby getting frisky to the beat of Muzak disco, no more jokes about Explodo-Gum, the treat that causes green saliva to ooze from the mouths of sweet-toothed kids. Instead, the filmmakers concentrate on a hackneyed sub-plot about the Organization for World Management, a sinister group of slick, young corporate types who plot to control the world by shrinking the masses. They kidnap poor Pat to run experiments on her, but, with the help of a gorilla (yes, another smart movie gorilla), she tries to escape and tell all of the terrible conspiracy. What happened to the clever social commentary, the biting satire? What happened to the attacks on advertising and the tube? Maybe Schumacher and Wagner were afraid they wouldn't be able to sell their movie to a network if their assault became too brutal. Whatever the reason, the sudden change in tone and content is a cheat.


THE REST of the cast members deliver uniformly fine and funny performances. Charles Grodin, as Pat's plastic husband Vance, has perfected his wimp's smile and slouch; he's made a career of portraying obnoxious sissies. Ned Beatty is appropriately sleazy as Vance's boss, the advertising king who wants to hide the secret of Pat's shrinking because it could cause a "crisis of confidence in American consumerism."

But it's Tomlin's party from the first frame to the last. She delivers several abysmally stupid lines with such true conviction that you're forced to, at least, let out a light chuckle. If only Shrinking Woman could have maintained the comic intelligence that Tomlin displays, it could have been a much needed clever satire. But instead, it lacks the courage to fulfill its initial convictions. Schumacher and Wagner would have been better off leaving clever Simians to Tarzan and Clint Eastwood.