Sunday 10 May 2015

Movie Review: Death Becomes Her (1992)

An atrocious supernatural comedy about the desire to stay young, Death Becomes Her is a colossal waste of talent.

Actress Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) and writer Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn) are long-time frenemies, with Madeline routinely stealing the heart of any man Helen likes. Madeline realizes her career is fading, and becomes obsessed with her looks. This makes Helen's latest boyfriend, renowned plastic surgeon Dr. Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis), even more attractive, and Madeline duly marries him from under Helen's nose. The betrayal sends Helen into a tailspin, she gains a lot of weight and has to undergo therapy and a stint at a mental institution.

Meanwhile, after many years of marriage, Madeline and Ernest are barely on speaking terms. His career has declined and he is now an embalmer, while she is ever more desperately looking for the latest treatment to maintain her looks. When a spectacularly slim and beautiful Helen makes an unexpected comeback as a successful writer and sets her sights on revenge, Madeline seeks the help of the mysterious sorceress Lisle (Isabella Rossellini), who for the right price can provide a potion that ensures eternal youthfulness.

After a triumphal run featuring critically celebrated and commercially successful movies (including hits Romancing The Stone, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the Back To The Future trilogy) director Robert Zemeckis overreaches and stumbles badly. Death Becomes Her is witless, boring and badly paced, with a remarkably flat script, perhaps two laughs over 104 minutes, and horrid over-acting.

The main selling point is some early-era CGI, and the film gives away its surprises in the marketing posters: as a result of dabbling with the supernatural Streep's neck rotates 180 degrees, and Hawn has a hole in her stomach. This is intended to be hilarious, but by the time the ponderous plot gets there, the characters have by far overstayed their welcome.

With better treatment there may have been some clever things to say about Hollywood's obsession with youth and beauty, but Death Becomes Her runs away from any smart ideas in search of imbecilic slapstick, and makes the elementary mistake of ensuring that all the characters are unappealing, self-centred and badly developed. Madeline and Helen hate each other and Madeline and Ernest despise each other, and so its impossible to care whether any of them live or die, and how the ridiculous triangle of hate is resolved. The inane idea of casting against type with Streep as a fading star and Willis as a wimp only serves to further damage the film.

By the time Streep and Hawn get down to duelling with swinging shovels at a level of intellect consistent with a bad episode of Heckle and Jeckle, Death Becomes Her curls into a small ball and dies in the corner.

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