Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Nudity and Off-Color Humor
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: Martin Donovan & David Koepp
Starring: Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis, Goldie Hawn, Isabella Rossellini, Ian Ogilvy, Adam Storke & Nancy Fish
Between creating the BACK TO THE FUTURE trilogy and winning two Academy Awards for FORREST GUMP, director Robert Zemeckis helmed a darkly funny horror-comedy. Though it was a huge box office smash at the time of its release and won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, DEATH BECOMES HER has become a bit of an underrated gem these days. This dark comedy relies on smart writing, different styles of humor and a thoroughly macabre sense of whimsy. It also features Bruce Willis as you’ve never seen him before and Meryl Streep in one of her more cartoonish roles (which is really saying something). DEATH BECOMES HER is sure to delight those who have a penchant for morbid humor and want something a little out of the ordinary.
Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) is a Broadway babe who cherishes her youthful looks and enjoys stealing boyfriends away from her longtime rival Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn). When her latest beau Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis) falls victim to Madeline’s charm, Helen grows fat and envious. Years pass by and an aging Madeline becomes desperate to preserve her fading beauty. Madeline’s money-sucking plastic surgery addiction puts her in the sights of the mysterious Lisle von Rhoman (Isabella Rossellini) who has connections to the fountain of youth. Just as Madeline seems to have found the secret to eternal beauty, the revenge-driven Helen re-enters the picture and hatches a murderous plot with wimpy, drunken Ernest. Gruesome gags, sinister silliness and lots of laughs ensue.
I had a difficult time summarizing this film’s synopsis in a non-spoilery way, because there’s just so much that happens in the plot. The film jumps through fourteen years within the first ten minutes, but does so in a way that feels effortless and essential to the story. In many ways, the script is sort of brilliant as many solid jokes come in the form of character development before any youth potions and supernatural hijinks ever appear on the screen. Meryl Streep is fantastic as the viciously vain Madeline, while Goldie Hawn is hilarious in the role of beautiful psychopath Helen. Isabella Rossellini makes the most of her three scenes as the sexy, mysterious Lisle. The real scene-stealer is Bruce Willis though, who diverts from his expected tough guy persona to play a drunken wimp and frequently gets the biggest laughs in the film.
Some of DEATH BECOMES HER’s technical aspects have noticeably aged and appear somewhat cheesy, but the early 90’s CGI remains pretty impressive for its time and occasionally blends in with macabre practical effects work. The film’s violence is cartoony to the point where this received a PG-13, even though bones are graphically broken and people receive other rather gruesome injuries. None of the film’s darker sensibilities ever overshadow the creative fun, mostly because they directly feed into the giddily ghoulish entertainment. After all, this is a comedy about an intense rivalry that boils over into supernatural territory and one poor schmuck caught in the middle of two bickering homicidal women.
I’ve already mentioned that the screenplay’s character development is clever, but DEATH BECOMES HER has a way of going into places that you don’t expect. Certain plot twists are ballsy, while other expected developments (especially a big turn midway through) play out in satisfying ways. The film never takes itself too seriously and plays 99% of its scenes up for laughs, most of which work wonderfully. The script falters slightly when a few nagging plot holes emerge later on, a couple of which simply could have to be written off as wild coincidences. However, a surprisingly deep moral message (think something along the lines of DORIAN GRAY) packs in an extra layer of cleverness that you might not expect.
DEATH BECOMES HER is one of the more underrated films of the 90’s. It’s not great in every department, due to some effects that don’t hold up and a few annoying plot holes. However, this horror-comedy delivers laughs and a macabre charm that’s pretty much irresistible. The humor includes awkward character interactions, memorable dialogue, over-the-top cartoony moments, and visual jokes that you may not expect (especially during the final act). If you want to see Bruce Willis like you’ve never seen him before and also watch Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn violently duking it out with murderous methods, DEATH BECOMES HER is certainly up your alley.