[The Plumber is] a 76-minute Pinteresque black comedy, which at times is hysterically funny and at other times emotionally disturbing….
The Plumber is in some ways a more perfectly realized work than Weir's earlier, more ambitious films…. The brilliance of the film lies in taking [a] stock situation from domestic comedy, which would be farcical in the context of an I Love Lucy show, and transforming it into a desperate struggle for sanity and survival. (p. 17)
[The] ambiguity in the story greatly enriches its meaning. [Weir] consciously cultivates the reading of [Jill and Max's encounter] on many different levels—not merely as a sexual struggle between a swaggering macho bully and a timid, uptight woman, but also as a class struggle between the underprivileged working class and the snobbish, educated bourgeoisie; between the instinctive world of sexuality, improvisation, and charm and the academic world of reason, science and law; between the sixties counter culture that spawned underground rock stars and rebels and the seventies establishment that pursues world progress and personal advancement. (p. 18)
[The] movie suggests that both characters are victims of the class system and the established society. Despite her privileged status as a graduate student, Jill's role as a woman and as a housewife renders her powerless and vulnerable to male manipulation, not only from the obnoxious plumber [Max], but also from her husband [Brian] who assumes his career is far more important than her mental health. The only way that she can persuade anyone that the plumber is endangering her life is to prove that he poses a threat to private property—by accusing him of stealing money and the expensive watch that her husband gave her. Although Max is clearly innocent of these crimes, ironically he is guilty of far more dangerous attacks on her sanity. But these violations are not defined as crimes by the society. In order to survive the threat he poses, she herself has to commit a crime. That is the only way she can win the attention, sympathy and support of her husband, the university, and the law.
In some ways the confrontation between Jill and Max is analogous to the encounter between the lawyer and the aboriginal shaman in The Last Wave. Both plots involve a clash between two cultures. In The Plumber this connection is underscored by an inset story told by Jill to her husband very early in the film…. Intrigued with the story, Brian advises Jill to include it in her thesis—it would make the book more appealing to a wider audience. One can't help take this remark self-reflexively as a statement about Weir's own narrative strategy; but he chooses not to dramatize the event in a flashback and keeps his camera restricted to the university complex. Yet at certain moments throughout the film, the camera dwells on a photograph of [the shaman from Jill's story] and Jill intermittently plays musical tapes from his culture. These visual and audio cues lead us to see this earlier encounter as the "germinal seed" that controls Jill's reactions to the plumber and to reinterpret her interaction with Max in this ethnographic context. In both cases, Jill is confronting a powerful male who imposes his psychic reality and forces her into a passivity that threatens her identity; in both cases, she intuitively discovers a way to humiliate and defeat the man within his own male-dominated cultural context. (pp. 18-19)
There is a chain of scatalogical associations between … Max's low prestige job as a plumber (which directly involved him with the apparatus by which civilized man disguises his most humiliating biological function), and the sewer works in The Last Wave, which is chosen as sacred grounds by the aborigines because they know it's the only wasteland that western civilization will avoid at all costs. As Rabelais and Swift have so powerfully proved, scatalogical imagery, particularly when humorous, can be extremely subversive. This subversive potential is fully realized in the most hilarious sequence of The Plumber. In the midst of her plumbing battles, Jill is manipulated by her husband into cooking a curry dinner for two of his distinguished academic visitors…. The civilized ritual of the dinner party is suddenly transformed back into the basic biological process [when the Indian uses the bathroom] which, as Buñuel so wittily reminded us in Phantom of Liberty, has two ends. Once he enters the john, the visitor is confronted with a comical labyrinth of pipes…. Instead of ruining the evening, this comical accident actually deflates the pomposity of the social rituals and humanizes hosts and guests. It works in everyone's favor—cinching Brian's invitation to Geneva, making Jill's bogeyman look benign, and dispelling the audience's nervous tension with laughter. Even the disturbing story of the shaman's humiliation now seems comical from this farcical perspective…. But just at the point when the Cowpers and we in the audience become too smug, the nightmare recurs with a vengeance…. This time the humiliating disaster is not pure farce. (pp. 19-20)
In The Plumber one area of stylistic richness is the music, which helps to control the skillful modulation of tones and which also underscores the conflict between the two central characters. The opponents each have a musical track which they use to project their personality and dominate the apartment space….
Although The Plumber is much less ambitious than [Weir's] other works, it nevertheless proves that he is capable of working very effectively with a wide range of tones and it continues to fulfill his promise. (p. 20)
Marsha Kinder, "Reviews: 'The Plumber'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1980 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, Summer, 1980, pp. 17-21.