Mordant, daring, and way, way out there, “Death Becomes Her” is a very dark comedy that yields far more strange fascination than outright laughs. Catty satire on the obsession with youthful good looks also represents Robert Zemeckis’ latest stretch of state-of-the-art special effects within a basically character-oriented context. Central problem is that this treat for somewhat specialized tastes must be marketed to the widest possible public due to its clearly big-time budget, and general audiences are very unlikely to warm to this wickedly cold-hearted tale of jealousy, spite and revenge despite the abundance of eye-popping effects.
Artistically, Universal can be commended for backing such an unusual and risky project, but that’s not what it needs right now.
In tone, pic somewhat resembles Billy Wilder without the sentiment and, in his day, Wilder was accused of having no heart. Martin Donovan and David Koepp’s luridly imaginative screenplay has a comic precision that is further sharpened by the stops-out performances of Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn. Some may complain of misogyny, others will find the concerns silly, and there is no doubt that the cultivated archness of style creates a distance that produces admiration more than enthusiasm.
The long-arc script describes the epic competition between vain actress Streep and troubled author Hawn, initially for the love of superstar plastic surgeon Bruce Willis but, more importantly, for the secret to eternal life and youth. After an amusing prologue that pithily sketches how Streep steals Willis away from Hawn, Zemeckis serves up his first amazing scene with the introduction , seven years later, of Hawn as an embittered fat slob whose favorite pastime is rerunning a tape of a movie scene in which Streep is murdered.
Audiences will gasp and gape at Hawn, who is made up and prostheticized to look twice her normal weight in utterly convincing fashion. As everywhere else in the film, effects work is seamless and first-rate. If these techniques had been available a decade ago, would Robert De Niro have been able to forgo his weight gain for “Raging Bull”?
Another seven years pass, and Streep, now a washed up mess, is living in sterile BevHills splendor with Willis, whose alcoholic unhappiness has contributed to his professional demotion to mortician to the stars. In order to gloat over her old rival’s obesity, Streep insists upon attending a chic book party for Hawn, but is horrified to discover that Hawn, although 50, now looks like an ad for a health club.
Frantic to outdo her bitter enemy, and spurned as an old bag by her hunky young lover, Streep ends up at the fabulous mansion of Isabella Rossellini, a kinky beauty who turns out to be a high priestess of eternal life. Take a drink of her stratospherically expensive magic elixir, Streep is told, and she will look her best forever, with the proviso that she must disappear from sight after a decade so as not to arouse suspicion.
While the fountain of youth theme has often come up in films, it has never been given anything like this treatment before. Good cheap laughs are had as the potion makes Streep’s rear end tighten and breasts move up and in. Later, seemingly murdered by Willis in an achingly good scene that involves a spectacular tumble down a flight of stairs, Streep bounces back to life, but with her head twisted around backward. The spectacle of the actress lurching about with her face pointed in the same direction as her posterior can only be described as astonishing,
Hawn then gets her turn at special effects immortality when, after being blown away by Streep, she begins parading around with an enormous hole where her belly used to be. See-through effect is clever and beautifully executed.
While all manner of viewers will appreciate these scenes, the humor is of a somewhat more rarified and sophisticated variety. Scripters Donovan and Koepp previously collaborated on “Apartment Zero,” an impressively insidious cult item that Donovan directed.
The new film has the external trappings of a mainstream release, but its subjects of concern and targets of satire are more narrowly defined and probably of slight interest to younger audiences.
As if answering critics who have complained that she takes herself too seriously, Streep does an acid sendup of aging beauty queens that will be relished by devotees of showbiz and its icons. Her commanding shrillness reminds at times of Elizabeth Taylor, and her comic timing is highly tuned to the hypersensitivity of those who judge all by appearances.
Hawn plays very well with her co-star, but is mostly limited to a constant note of rabid vengeance. Except for the early few minutes in her fat incarnation , the laughs are not hers to grab. Looking determinedly middle-aged as the rattled former surgeon, Willis is OK, but doesn’t have the daft quality that would most likely have been suggested by Kevin Kline, the original choice for the role.
Rossellini brings the right exoticism to the witch-like dispenser of the ultimate Hollywood libation. Ian Ogilvy contributes some bizarre hilarity as the twitching chief of an elite beauty emporium, while an uncredited Sydney Pollack is great fun as a BevHills doctor who can’t diagnose Streep after she takes the potion.
Action slows somewhat during a mid-section overly devoted to Hawn’s abrasive demands that Willis knock off his wife, and the glamorpuss’ continued interest in the aging milquetoast comes into greater question as a result. A few minutes trimmed might have helped speed things along even more effectively.
Zemeckis’ direction is ultra-professional and able to maintain a consistently dark tone amid all the technical wizardry. He and lenser Dean Cundey have favored frequent use of wide-angle lenses mixed with smooth dollies and tracks that move in on subjects from across wide expanses. Rick Carter’s production design and Joanna Johnston’s costume design are vastly resourceful, and Alan Silvestri’s score astutely conjures up the feeling of 1940s melodrama.
But major bows will be taken by the many artists who contributed to the assorted effects, notably visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston, makeup designer Dick Smith, prosthetics supervisor Kevin Haney and special body effects designers and creators Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis. All of them have come up with things here that have never been seen before, and have pulled them off superbly.