It's not every super-successful director who's humble enough to admit that he once judged himself ''miserably untalented.'' In fact, there couldn't be a filmmaker more self-effacing than onetime department-store window dresser Joel Schumacher, who reached an apotheosis of modesty when he went on Charlie Rose's talk show last summer to plug the cineplex smash Batman Forever (1995, Warner, PG-13, priced for rental; wide-screen laserdisc, $39.98). Here he was, basking in the biggest grosses of a career awash in slick moneymakers (Falling Down, The Client) but when Rose complimented him on the snappy Bat sequel, Schumacher replied that he could accept good words about Batman Forever only ''on behalf of the thousand people that worked on it.''
Now there's a refreshingly accurate take on the blockbuster factory. Then again, there isn't much alternative to plain speaking when the home-video market keeps in the public eye a first movie as inept as The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981, MCA/Universal, PG, $14.98). Schumacher barely refereed this Lily Tomlin-Jane Wagner lampoon of toxic consumerism, but he did bring one clear bonus to the jumble of bad camera angles, shredded continuity, and inept slapstick: his feel for the bizarro polyester-and-shag-pile decor of Tomlin's tract home. That grace note, though, doesn't come across in MCA's grainy, color-drained tape transfer, a relic of the low-tech dawn of home-video technology.
With D.C. Cab (1983, MCA/Universal, R, $19.95), Schumacher atoned by turning to no-special-effects basics. Directing his own script, he crosscuts between jive-talkin' but ever-sage African-Americans (Mr. T, Charlie Barnett) and a dopey white dude (Adam Baldwin) who dreams of running his own fleet. The goings-on are part Taxi, part Animal House, and part Fame, replete with lovable-lug dispatchers, sophomoric stunts, Irene Cara billed ''as herself,'' and a Giorgio Moroder disco score troweled over any moment that, unaccompanied, might fall apart.
Sample happy though he may be, Schumacher has occasionally blazed a trail. Take his technically assured ensemble effort St. Elmo's Fire (1985, Columbia TriStar, R, $12.95), which he cowrote. The roots of Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place are unmistakable in the way that Brat Packers Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Ally Sheedy, Andrew McCarthy, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, and Mare Winningham preen, pout, muse, bitch, and cross-copulate their way through stylish Georgetown digs. Believability be damned, Schumacher seems to hoot in synch with the '80s zeitgeist; what's a movie if it's not drop-dead attractive?
But that sense of style and pumped-up camaraderie goes haywire in Flatliners (1990, Columbia TriStar, R, $19.95), a med-student melodrama wherein Schumacher takes himself fatally seriously. As Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland, Billy Baldwin, and Kevin Bacon brandish the shock paddles and take turns dying for a few minutes, colored lights play incessantly over their furrowed, facialed brows and perfect tresses, tinting every scene burnished gold or autopsy blue. Cassette copies also crop Flatliners' wide-screen framing terribly, putting even more emphasis on faces spouting ludicrous dialogue in tight close-ups.
Next to such an awkward home-screen translation, Batman Forever looks that much more ravishing. The movie itself shows Schumacher nimbly balancing star turns, broad punchlines, and moody decor, while the state-of-the-art transfer elevates his color sense into a tour de force. Each gradation of green at Riddler Jim Carrey's lair looks as if it were spray-painted on your screen. Yes, Schumacher still hiccups nervously when it comes to pacing a narrative. But when he's got this many sparkling bits of visual ephemera to flit to, it's hard to fault him for being enthusiastic. And as you revisit scenes on video, the settings reveal intimate splendors, like Wayne Manor lamps that make Val Kilmer and Nicole Kidman look so fashion-spread foxy. From a man who first flexed his sensibility in store windows, here's a flick that feels impeccably displayed when seen through a tube. Batman Forever: B; The Incredible Shrinking Woman: C-; D.C. Cab: C; St. Elmo's Fire: B-; Flatliners: D