Joel Schumacher passed away earlier this month after a yearlong battle with cancer. He was 80. And his obituaries have been some of the weirdest things I’ve read.
Schumacher, throughout his career, was an incredibly divisive filmmaker. He directed two films I love – Falling Down and Phone Booth. The latter is a great Hitchcockian thriller that captured the post 9/11 tension everyone was feeling in a dramatically changed world, and the former is a great character study of a man turning into a villain without even realizing how evil he is. Sure, some of the fans of the movie are severely misguided, but Schumacher made his intentions noticeably clear in that movie and if you don’t get it…well, a filmmaker can only hold your hand for so long.
But the rest of his filmography is unfortunately spotty at best. He was incredibly brave for living as an openly gay man and putting gay themes in mainstream blockbusters during a time when that really did not happen (at least not on purpose). But some of the stuff he made is nonsensical. His adaptation of The Client is pointless and doesn’t add anything to the book, Lost Boys has some fantastic scenes but it grinds to a halt whenever Schumacher decides it should be about the Two Coreys, The Phantom of the Opera is as much of an artistic miscalculation as the oft maligned Cats (and I like the original Phantom musical), and…honestly, I don’t want to bring up Batman & Robin again, except to say when the same studio that hired you to make the movie turns around and directly mocks the results, something has gone terribly wrong. I haven’t seen A Time to Kill yet, but people assure me is a fantastic courtroom drama, so maybe I’m still not giving him enough credit.
But the strange thing is how the people writing articles about his life and career tried to pretend that division did not exist. Some people pretended like Schumacher’s filmography was filled with nothing but pop culture classics and ignored the backlash against him, which isn’t a fair evaluation. But what was worse were the people who took the opposite route, like Duane Byrge and Mike Barnes in The Hollywood Reporter. The article mentions some of his successes, but half the article is devoted to quotes about him apologizing for Batman & Robin. That may have been OK in a retrospective about the movie, but it feels inappropriate for an obituary. Besides, the writers ALSO ignore the fact Schumacher was trying new things even in a limited mold. I may not like The Lost Boys but I am not going to say it’s a train wreck that didn’t try something new in a genre that was growing increasingly stale.
Interestingly, Byrge and Barnes acknowledge that point when it mentions his directorial debut The Incredible Shrinking Woman. (He wrote the screenplays for Car Wash and Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz before he was given a directing gig. No, for real – Schumacher wrote the screenplay for The Wiz.) The article points out the movie “showed off surprising color schemes and a striking design.” That’s not exactly high praise – it reminds me of the scene in Ed Wood in which Wood latches onto a critic’s line about how the costumes in his failed play were very realistic. But it also shows just how some people wanted to simultaneously to show Schumacher some respect but also dismiss him as a talentless hack.
However, I am not interested in writing Schumacher off like that. No filmmaker ever should be. So, let’s look at The Incredible Shrinking Woman and see what we can learn about his artistic interests.
The Incredible Shrinking Woman is a remake/spoof of the 1950s classic The Incredible Shrinking Man. That was a straight horror film about a man finding himself physically shrinking away into nothing. Any “comedy” in it comes from its low budget.
This remake doesn’t deal with any of the horrifying aspects of the original. It follows housewife Pat Kramer (Lily Tomlin) who starts shrinking due to her exposure to the numerous household products her husband Vance (Charles Grodin) sells. She ends up kidnapped by a group that wants to use her blood to invent a literal shrinking potion. Also, there is a gorilla named Sidney (legendary makeup artist Rick Baker in a costume) because…well, why not?
Schumacher turns the material into a sort of Stepford Wives style spoof and some of it is rather inspired. There is no musical score – just commercial jingles that play over scenes. All of Kramer’s neighbors constantly talk like they’re filming an advertisement. The production design is reminiscent of John Water’s Polyester, with its tacky colors. (Also, ironically enough, the Americana suburb in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands.) I found myself enjoying a lot of the satire. Sure, John Waters did it MUCH better but that doesn’t mean the movie is bad. I enjoyed the first act because it wasn’t about a woman shrinking. It’s not perfect but for a directorial debut, Schumacher demonstrated he had some interesting ideas and was capable of executing them in a fun way.
But then the shrinking starts and kills the movie for me. Schumacher wasn’t nearly as interested in that as he was in mocking conservative suburbia. Had the film continued as a John Waters knock off it would have been far more interesting.
One thing I didn’t understand is WHY Schumacher decided to spoof The Incredible Shrinking Man and the film never bothers to explain the decision. Lily Tomlin starts shrinking, she gets famous, she’s kidnapped, and all of the Douglas Sirk melodrama in the first act completely disappears. The movie doesn’t really have a lot to say about Pat’s shrinking that wasn’t already covered in the first act. There is a subplot regarding Vance’s company trying to keep the origin of her shrinking a secret so that sales are not affected, which predicts the out of control corporations that we’re still dealing with today. But that’s gone by the third act as the film switches to dealing with a comic book villain plot and a gorilla.
I did enjoy the special effects and Schumacher demonstrates he can use them very effectively. There are some great forced perspective shots and one or two scenes that actually are as horrifying as anything in the original movie, particularly the scenes with Pat is trapped in a closet with some horrifying talking dolls or when she falls into a garbage disposal. Considering the film’s low budget (the stock it was shot on looks TERRIBLE in HD), Schumacher’s effects are even more impressive. Whatever anyone thinks about his career, Schumacher had a great eye for design and for effects.
But honestly, the effects don’t save the film’s shifting tone and weird narrative choices. Did I mention the final act of the film ends with a Mel Brooks style chase scene? Or the fact that part of this is meant to be a Christmas movie? Or there is an emotional scene in which Pat realizes that her shrinking is straining her relationship with her kids – but one of those children has a water faucet glued to his forehead and it’s never explained why? As the movie went on it became weirder and increasingly inexplicable.
The Incredible Shrinking Woman ultimately has the same problem as The Lost Boys. When it’s focused on David tempting Michael into becoming a vampire, it’s a great metaphor for puberty and a young man coming to terms with the strange things happening to his body. Not to mention the fact that David and Michael’s relationship plays like David attempting to seduce Michael. It’s dark, it’s effective, and it’s a filmmaker exploring themes that interest him. But then the film grinds to a halt after Schumacher moves away from that and instead turns the movie into a dumb Goonies knock-off as Corey and Corey try to kill the head vampire. By the end of the movie, the film has gone off the rails and forgotten that it’s not supposed to be a silly comic book style narrative.
I don’t want to spend the review criticizing all of Schumacher’s choices. Like I said at the start, he could make an interesting movie. Additionally, from what I have heard he was a nice, pleasant person – something that is still too rare in major film directors. But I also can’t ignore the mistakes he made here. I increasingly get the feeling Schumacher was never really given a chance to make the movies he really wanted to make. He tried to combine his interests with what Hollywood wanted him to do – and unfortunately for most of his life and career, major studios weren’t particularly interested in allowing Schumacher to explore the themes he really wanted to explore. So, he tried to balance everything as best he could…but it never really worked.
The Incredible Shrinking Woman is a perfect representation of Schumacher’s career. It has some interesting ideas and some great effects. He also shows he’s capable of comedy. But the result feels like two different movies that never properly connect to each other. And as it goes on, the ideas Schumacher presents becoming sillier and more outlandish. It’s EVERY Schumacher film rolled into one – simultaneously interesting, even good at times, but overall clunky and unfocused. But hey – at least we didn’t have Batman with a credit card in this one.