Hollywood’s obsession with youth and beauty gets a knock in the teeth in Robert Zemeckis’ Death Becomes Her. A twisted comedy starring Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn as the archetypal “frenemies” who duke it out over the romantic interest of meek and mild-mannered plastic surgeon, Ernest (Bruce Willis). Hawn’s mousey Helen saw him first, but Streep’s monstrously egotistical b-movie actress, Madeline steals him, hoping he’d be an infinite source of nips/tucks and prove to be a fountain of youth. The complication arises when dowdy Helen becomes a knockout and Madeline seeks supernatural solutions to her aging problems by contacting Lisle (Isabella Rossellini), who sells her a potion that promises eternal youth as well as immortality. Madeline’s problem is further exacerbated by the revelation that Helen’s evergreen beauty is a result of Lisle’s magic as well.
Death Becomes Her is a fantastic, but brittle film to watch. It’s a hilarious comedy, but it’s very hard to like – none of the characters are likable, and even the most sympathetic one, paunchy sad-sack Ernest, brought most of the misery onto himself. The writing is sharp and acerbic, and despite consistent lapses into the ridiculous, the game cast keeps viewers drawn into the often-outlandish story.
That Streep and Hawn do great work is no surprise. Hawn is arguably one of the brightest screen comediennes of her generation. She eschews her daffy, lovable goof persona and instead tears into her harsh and unlikable character with relish; it’s nice to see Hawn do this kind of evil, murderous role, when she’s usually presented with characters that are kind. Streep is her comedic match and is hilariously droll as the eccentric, talent-light actress. The film opens with a gaudy, terrible musical number of a musical-version of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth, which Streep performs with a genius incompetence. This isn’t her most subtle characterization, but the Tallulah Bankhead/Lady Macbeth channeling that Streep does is great to watch.
The peerless work of Hawn and Streep are expected – what’s pretty surprisingly funny job that Willis and Rossellini do. Willis proved to be a good comic actor in the TV show Moonlighting and plays against his macho-action star-type well. He’s aged with a balding plate and a generous spare tire. The fact that he doesn’t get lost in the blinding collective light of his leading ladies is a testament to his personable work. Rossellini, known primarily as an exotic and beautiful face, also does some ridiculously broad work that fun to take. She’s stupidly gorgeous and appears topless in all her scenes (with some strategically placed necklaces) and is a strange presence in the movie, but performs it all with great cheek.
This isn’t a perfect movie, nor is it a perfect black comedy. None of the character resemble anything remotely human. And there’s a strong reliance on special effects that can sometimes threaten the momentum of the plot – often Zemeckis will allow for extended episodes of Hawn’s and Streep’s bodies to be disfigured and mutilated as they face of against each other (at one point Hawn’s blown away buy a rifle only to emerge with a large porthole in her abdomen), as if to impress his audience to just what is possible. Also, once the virtues of the film are removed, there is a slightly disturbing sense of misogyny that simmers quietly just beneath the surface of the film – there’s just a little bit too much glee taken in the decay and destruction of the female body in this movie. Still, Hawn, Streep and Willis put on a pretty fantastic show.