Black humor of 'Death Becomes Her' is not enough in this pointless story

July 31, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Bob Zemeckis visited the past in "Back to the Future" and rescued animation in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," but in his new picture he really crosses a frontier: It offers new hope for the dead.

"Death Becomes Her" also may offer new hope for Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn, two stars whose careers have of late begun to turn stiff and stink a little.

The movie is an evilly joyous black, black comedy about the vanity, the yearning for youth and beauty at all costs among the rich and decadent, even post-mortem. Yes, it watches as a coupla dead chicks sit around talkin', schemin' and murderin'.

Streep is Madeline Ashton, creature of beauty and will but an advanced case of middle-aged meltdown. It could be said of her that although she has many great bones, she doesn't have a single nice one in her body: She'd burn a church to prevent a wrinkle.

A Broadway star, Mad's deepest joy in life is stealing adoring men from her poor sad sack college chum Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn), a failed writer. When she steals Goldie's ultimate catch, plastic surgeon Ernest Menville (a drab Bruce Willis), it shatters Goldie's personality. She endomorphs out self-destructively, at one point inflating to barrage-balloon proportion; but somehow, from the nut house and the fat farm, she comes back svelte and ruthless 14 years later, to retake her man and dispose of her adversary, now a movie star living in L.A.

Madeline, meanwhile, desperately trying to tuck and lipo her way to the illusion of youth, has tumbled to the secret of life eternal: a potion, offered at fabulous cost by a beguiling witch of beauty who is 71 but looks 21 (Isabella Rossellini). Mad pauses only to write the check; taking a quaff of the youth-brew, she feels a buzz and watches with delight as her body's perfect shape reasserts itself: What fell rises again. And those damned

liver spots: They go out. It's a kind of resurrection-lite.

And drat, just as she's looking fabulous again, her husband goes and murders her.

In essence, "Death Becomes Her" is a very sick puppy of a joke on the theme of the elasticity of the body. Robbed of the dignity of death, trapped in life but not vouchsafed from damage, the body becomes truly absurd as it yields to trauma. Thus "Death Becomes Her" becomes an extended goof on the destruction of bone and tissue. It's a trauma-rama.

Whitman sang the body electric; Zemeckis sings the body devastated. Knocked down the stairs, Madeline resembles a broken chaise lounge or a squashed mantis, its legs all mixed. When she picks herself up, her head has done the hokey-pokey and turned itself about. When, later, she's pounded by shovel like a whack-a-mole, that head is crunched halfway into her thorax; she becomes a human turtle. She pulls it out with a game little attempt at dignity. Meanwhile, in return, Helen catches a valentine of buckshot through the middle: She bumbles about somewhat shakily as a living

corpse with an opening the size of a bowling ball where her 26-inch waist used to be.

The special effects required to achieve these grotesque visions are truly advanced, particularly that macabre image of Streep wearing her head like a kid who's turned his X-cap backward. But the truth is, no matter how miraculous these vistas may be, the movie is pretty much running on empty. I mean, what is its point? That eternal life is bad? I love a film with a profound and relevant moral stance.

And the movie is intermittently funny rather than increasingly funny. By that I mean its laughs continue arithmetically, one after the other, but they do not increase exponentially, building upon each other until they cripple you. The two best sequences are the corpse battle between the ranking actresses and a cameo job by director Sydney Pollack as a doctor who discovers that his patient -- loquacious, crabby, willful Madeline -- is dead. An overblown chase climax helps nothing except the bank accounts of the craftsmen who assembled it.

It's a long-held precept of criticism that viewers must have someone to identify with just to get inside a movie. That's not strictly true; look at such wondrous Billy Wilder hits as "Sunset Boulevard" or "Stalag 17," in which everyone was a rascal. Still, the three principals here are either rancid or weak; they have no placement at all on the moral spectrum. But it's not enough to be merely bad; you have to be interesting as well.

As the movie wears along, they become death.

'Death Becomes Her'

Starring Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis.

Directed by Bob Zemeckis.

Released by Universal.

Rated PG-13.

** 1/2

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