movie review

A Gruesome Death

Oh, Meryl. Photo: Universal Pictures

Since I dislike critical superlatives, I will refrain from saying that Robert Zemeckis’s Death Becomes Her is the worst big-budget movie I’ve ever seen. After all, Hudson Hawk lingers in recent memory, and Boomerang yet haunts the malls; also, the year is still young and may bring wonderful surprises. Let us say, however, that Death Becomes Her is not only (like these two movies) contemptuous of the audience, it has the unique quality of being contemptuous of itself. Anxiety, loathing, and self-hatred gush from its gaudy pores. The movie appears to be flailing itself to death, and it ends, appropriately enough, with the lead characters knocking their own heads off.

Two Beverly Hills harridans (Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn), both in love with the same pathetic man (Bruce Willis), seek eternal youth and immortality by drinking a potion, which …. Oh, forget it. There is no plot, just a concept: Turn two famous actresses into cartoon figures and pass off the results as “black comedy.” In practice, Zemeckis’s idea of black comedy means people gasping and screeching and falling down on huge, marble-floored sets while lightning flashes outside the windows. The movie is a festival of overblown gothic high jinks — for instance, Isabella Rossellini turns up as an erotomaniacal witch with necklaces covering her breasts. (Rossellini can’t stop grinning.) The style is too loud and desperate to achieve camp, yet I have the sinking feeling that no one in Hollywood knows this, that no one has enough confidence and authority to tell Zemeckis that actors can’t play comedy in those cavernous sets.

The target of the movie’s jokes is female vanity, but since Zemeckis exhibits not a trace of affection for the actresses (or for any of the men, either), one feels humiliated merely watching his crude-spirited wit. Goldie Hawn is awful, but Meryl Streep at least works with her customary skill. Asked to play a smirking bitch, she sends her voice down to baritonal range and uses her needle nose and a small, freezing smile for provocation. She can’t stop the idiotic big-budget thinking that turns human beings into grotesques, but she escapes the general dejection — she seems to be enjoying herself. The rest of them, however, including the director, are just alienated from themselves.

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A Gruesome Death