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‘Death Becomes Her’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 31, 1992


Robert Zemeckis
Meryl Streep;
Goldie Hawn;
Bruce Willis;
Isabella Rossellini;
Ian Ogilvy
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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In "Death Becomes Her," staying young becomes a maniacal obsession. A generation ago, this parable about the ravages of time might have starred Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. It would have been sad, poignant and -- no doubt -- better written. But it wouldn't have had gross-out prosthetics! Or cutting-edge special effects! And it wouldn't have been as darkly hysterical as this Robert Zemeckis movie.

"Death Becomes Her" may have late-in-the-game plotting problems. But, with the sporting participation of Goldie Hawn, Meryl Streep and Bruce Willis, as well as those effects, its satire is juicily mordant. If the pleasure doesn't last long after the movie, it's more than enjoyable during.

When meek Hawn takes marrowless fiance (and plastic surgeon) Willis to catch Streep's song-and-dance stage act, it's a test. Streep, a childhood friend of Hawn's, has always stolen her men. Unfortunately, the jinx repeats itself. Willis is bowled over, and aging Streep recognizes the advantage of a man adept with the scalpel. When she and Willis get married, jilted Hawn puts on weight (try 200 pounds!) and plots a bitter revenge.

Many years later, when older, haggard Streep sees how young and trim Hawn has suddenly become, she plunges into existential despair. She appeals desperately to exclusive beauty guru Isabella Rossellini, blank check in hand. She returns mysteriously transformed. Now, two women -- unusually lithe and trim for their age -- duke it out for pudgy, alcoholic, beaten-down Willis. If he's not much on looks, he's great on maintenance.

Director Zemeckis has extraordinary pop-cultural know-how. His ability to fuse story with visual gymnastics is peerless. With the same technical team responsible for his "Back to the Future" trilogy and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," he creates a wonderfully grotesque indictment of the jet set's amusing (but also depressing) attempts to stay forever young.

Screenwriters Martin Donovan and David Koepp, who made the roommate chiller "Apartment Zero," reach into their sardonic trove again. With Zemeckis's mischievous penchant for sardonic bathos, the combination is enjoyably lethal. When we first see Hawn (after years of overeating), Zemeckis reveals her in coy stages. First, there's a low-angle shot of Hawn's enormous, sagging butt in the chair. Then the camera cuts to what can only be described as Goldie the Whale Woman. She's an eerie, tragic blob, with dried dribble on her chin, slumped catatonically in front of the TV set.

Chances are you've seen the previews in which heads are twisted around and characters weather enormous holes in their middles. "Death" is full of this stuff. You'll also see the most violent tumble a victim ever suffered down a staircase. It's so grisly it's hysterical.

The performances are uniformly good. Streep makes a transcendent dragon lady. When she makes that special visit to Rossellini, the mystery woman pricks Streep's fingertip with a knife -- in order to demonstrate her special aging remedy. "AAAAAAAH!" shrieks Streep. "What are you, nuts?"

There is also a great cameo from Sydney Pollack as the unfortunate doctor who has to check Streep's vital signs. At that time she happens to have no pulse, a temperature below 80 and no pain whatsoever from some nasty bone protrusions. With understated but mounting panic, he reaches for Willis's liquor flask. "I wonder if I might have a little sip," he says weakly.

While "Death" is fun, there's something cool and removed about it, which makes it feel ultimately like an exercise in special effects. It's more clever than affecting, its narrative tactics more like entertaining detours than a mounting drama. That shortcoming is redeemed by the movie's grim relentlessness. Certainly there's an unmistakable message about the right way to live. But, for the most part, "Death" bites the hand that nips and tucks it to the bitter end. In a black comedy, that's the ultimate bottom line.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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