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‘Death Becomes Her’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 25, 1992

 


Director:
Robert Zemeckis
Cast:
Meryl Streep;
Goldie Hawn;
Bruce Willis;
Isabella Rossellini;
Ian Ogilvy
PG-13
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent
Oscars:
Visual


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Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn battle Mother Nature, the bitch who invented maturity, in "Death Becomes Her." A film about women by men -- director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriters Martin Donovan and David Koepp -- it is mostly an expensive way of warning boomer girls to act their age.

This inventive black comedy ridicules two gorgeous fortysomethings in search of the ultimate wrinkle cream. More cosmetic than cosmic in its approach, it thrives on what it condemns and in its own weird, wonderfully savvy fashion, spanks the liposucked fannies of Hollywood. It's as irresistibly nasty as "The War of the Roses" and as cheerily Gothic as "The Witches of Eastwick."

A tale in four chapters, it begins with Streep's parody of an Ann-Margret-inspired production number that asks the musical question, "When I look in the mirror, who do I see?" and answers, "I see me." Towed about the stage by a chorus of boy dancers, Streep is amazingly good at being bad. How gleefully she heads down Sunset Boulevard in the role of Madeline Ashton, an imperious star whose popularity is falling along with her face instead of growing with her waistline.

That night the bookish Helen Sharp (Hawn) brings her fiance (Bruce Willis) backstage to meet her old friend, which is pretty foolish when you consider that Madeline has a history of man-grabbing. And since Helen's fiance is a mild-mannered plastic surgeon named Ernest Menville, we assume he represents not just one man but all who bear the XY chromosome. Well, before you can say, "Don't forget to moisturize," Ernest and Madeline are wed.

Helen, who gains 200 pounds on a diet of cake frosting and enters a mental hospital, returns 12 or so years later to find the brilliant doctor an alcoholic reduced to making up corpses. Motivated by her hatred for Madeline, she has transformed herself into a va-va-voomish beauty-book author who is determined to win back Ernest. Her taut little tush and her chipper little chin leave Madeline in a jealous rage.

Madeline would do anything, she'd pay anything to get rid of those darned liver spots. And who should step in but Lancome spokesmodel Isabella Rossellini, ironically cast as a mysterious goddess endowed with a potion from hell. Drink it and you are forever young -- and beautiful, provided you take infinitely good care of your body.

Unfortunately, Madeline takes a nasty spill down a flight of stairs and comes up looking like Linda Blair, with her lovely head on backward. When Helen gloats, Madeline retaliates by blowing a hole through her the size of a trash-can lid, after which the two women are condemned to an eternal cat fight. Fed up with the feud, the doctor goes into a new-age phase.

Zemeckis, who took us "Back to the Future" thrice, directs this technically complicated, stylishly imaginative extravaganza with the sure hand of Dr. Menville before he got into Scotch. It's rich in terms of offbeat lines and unexpected laughs, as might be expected from Donovan and Koepp, authors of the kinky thriller "Apartment Zero." Still, there's its underlying high-and-mighty moral tone, which might have come straight from the pen of Hawthorne -- a puritannical posture wholly deserving of Madeline's retort: "Blah, blah, blah, blah." Really, fellas, what's a little cucumber mask going to hurt?

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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