On Death Becomes Her

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Who doesn’t need a real comedy sometimes? Death Becomes Her not only has a great cast with Meryl Streep (love her!), Goldie Hawn, and Bruce Willis. It’s a totally not serious sort of film that we all need every once and a while. According to The New York Times review:

Nowhere do movie characters defy the laws of the physical universe as gleefully as they do in Robert Zemeckis’s films. From Marty McFly’s time travel in the “Back to the Future” trilogy to Jessica Rabbit’s close encounters with real flesh and blood in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” Mr. Zemeckis’s creations escape the ordinary every chance they get. Even so, this director’s latest film manages to find a new frontier as it takes two glamour girls one step beyond the world of collagen shots and chemical peels. With inexorable logic, “Death Becomes Her” pushes Beverly Hills’s beautiful people over the edge, and into the land of the living dead.

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Well, why not? The premise for “Death Becomes Her” is at least as funny as a corpse, and often a lot more so. It suggests that Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep), an over-the-hill star first seen in a ghastly Broadway production number (“Can you believe that, a musical version of ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’?”), could be no worse off than she already is. Not even without a pulse.

And it suggests that death can be achieved in small, expensive doses. Shot through with an eternal-youth serum that will keep her uncannily attractive (if a bit brittle), Madeline is conveniently impervious to real injury by the time her milquetoast husband, Dr. Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis), screws up the nerve to throw her down a flight of stairs. All it takes is a coat of spray paint and an upbeat attitude to give Madeline what might, under less confusing circumstances, be called a new lease on life.

When a film barges headlong onto such thin ice, it had better have the brazenness to go all the way. “Death Becomes Her” dares to invent a world of spectacular self-interest and populate that world with two fabulous harridans (Ms. Streep and Goldie Hawn) giving wonderfully spirited performances. But in spite of that, it remains surprisingly tame. A lot of the problem arises from simple — and inexplicable — lapses in the screenplay. If you’re going to stage a party filled with dead celebrities (Marilyn, Andy, Elvis, etc.), better think of something for them to say.

As written by Martin Donovan and David Koepp, “Death Becomes Her” is wildly uneven, sometimes as wicked as a fashion-minded fairy tale and at other times unaccountably coarse and flat. Although the familiar jauntiness and energy of Mr. Zemeckis’s direction are always there, the viewer has too many occasions to wonder why those fine qualities aren’t somewhere else.

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Too often, material that could have been acidly funny is merely allowed to make the audience queasy, especially when it comes to the ghoulish special effects used to prove that Madeline Ashton and her arch-rival, Helen Sharp (Ms. Hawn), are really dead. Yes, it is now technically possible, through the magic of morphing, to show Ms. Streep with her head twisted on backward, her neck arched at an impossible angle. And it’s possible to depict Ms. Hawn, after she has been shot through the abdomen, with a cheery expression and a hole right through her middle. It may be possible, but it isn’t funny, and it isn’t even essential to the film’s point. The wildest extremes of “Death Becomes Her” seem to have come about for the sake of special effects, not for the sake of the story.

The film works best when it simply lets its two heroines match wits, since both actresses seem to be reveling in the down-and-dirty aspects of these witchy roles. Obviously, Ms. Streep has never been afraid of taking chances. But this time, in a role that more or less starts out where her comic turn in “She-Devil” left off, she outdoes even herself, daring to look ridiculous or pitiable in some scenes and rising to wonderfully silly heights of Hollywood chic in others. The costumes, by Joanna Johnston, are every bit as drop-dead as the material requires.

Ms. Hawn, charmingly spiteful as the romantic rival who has vowed revenge against Madeline for stealing her fiance, has a similarly high time. The effects used to make Ms. Hawn’s Helen, pre-youth serum, look as if she has gained a hundred pounds on an all ice-cream diet are truly amazing. So is the transformation that renders her svelte, gorgeous and ready to steal back Dr. Menville, although Mr. Willis’s mild performance makes him the least lively part of the equation. But even after the love of Dr. Menville fades on all sides (“Could you just not breathe?” Madeline hisses at him), his capacity as mortician to the stars makes him essential to the upkeep of the two gorgeous dead women in his life. “What if it fades?” they ask. “What if it chips? What if it rains? Will he come back for touch-ups?”

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Also in “Death Becomes Her,” and providing an unexpected bright spot, is an uncredited Sydney Pollack as a doctor at L’Hospital Beverly Hills who is greatly nonplussed when he discovers Madeline Ashton’s unusual symptoms. Isabella Rossellini appears at a more Gothic moment, playing the sorceress who supplies the potion and holding court over a household of well-trained Dobermans and handsome slaves. Ms. Rossellini’s scenes are staged as if the film makers had suddenly decided to play their story straight, without any hint of a satirical spark. For a comedy as chancy as this one, that kind of mistake is fatal.

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One thought on “On Death Becomes Her

  1. Pingback: On Mamma Mia! | The Progressive Democrat

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