Death Becomes Her (1992)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * *

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Helen (Goldie Hawn), an overweight aspiring writer, is engaged to a plastic surgeon, Dr. Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis), but her longtime friend, Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep), a glamorous actress, steals him away from her and marries him herself. Following a nervous breakdown, Helen slims down and becomes a best selling author. She then encounters Madeline and her husband and attempts to convince Ernest to murder his wife. Meanwhile, Madeline, fearful of aging, visits a strange woman, Lisle (Isabella Rossellini), who provides her with a mysterious elixir that is able to grant eternal life to the person who drinks it. What she does not know is that Helen also owes her newfound youth and beauty to the same potion.

Robert Zemeckis' Death Becomes Her is a generally entertaining, occasionally clever, but ultimately forgettable film.

Whatever the movie's flaws, its humor is both pleasantly dark and genuinely enjoyable. The events at the core of the narrative, in particular, are delightfully macabre. Having consumed the elixir of youth given them by Lisle, not only do Helen and Madeline look unusually young for their ages, but they do not die, even if killed. The pair, consequently, endure as animated corpses even after they have murdered one another, although, after their deaths, each of them does require frequent repairs in order to approximate a normal appearance. The satire on Hollywood obsessions with youth and beauty, and on celebrities' frequent reliance on plastic surgeons to help them maintain something vaguely like a youthful look, even if, in fact, it is horribly distorted and unnatural, is, on the whole, nicely done. I cannot say it is ever particularly incisive, but it is often funny.

Even many of the film's numerous slapstick routines and gruesome sight gags are well realized. When, for instance, Madeline shoots Helen with a rifle, the latter rises up with a huge, gaping hole piercing her abdomen, through which the viewer is able to see whatever happens to be behind her. Soon thereafter, when Helen bashes Madeline's skull with a shovel, she literally drives the woman's head into her body so that her rival appears to be peeking out from between her own shoulders. The list of such sequences goes on and on.

What is more, the film's characters are so exaggerated that they are consistently entertaining. Madeline is a stereotypically vain, selfish Hollywood star. Helen is a bookish, homely woman who is perpetually jealous of her more attractive friend, and who, having made herself beautiful, is more than willing to do that woman harm. Ernest is a quiet, easily swayed, endlessly victimized individual who, despite his numerous faults, is, essentially, a decent person. Each of them has been brought to life with skill and each, therefore, contributes to the film's comedic success.

Sadly, as clever as is the scenario the screenwriters have crafted, and as appealing as are many of the visual and thematic elements included in it, the director is never able to infuse the movie with that particular elusive quality that would have given it some real distinction. The film is always well made and enjoyable, but, despite its potential, it never rises above the ordinary. Consequently, although I was entertained by Death Becomes Her, I must admit that I was somewhat disappointed by it. The movie could have been savagely incisive, deliciously clever, and truly innovative, but, instead, it is often simply mediocre.

Review by Keith Allen

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