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Death Becomes Her

I remember reading a short story about the Fountain of Youth back in high school; the story's title was something like "The Strange Experiment Of Professor Heidigger." It was the story of a group of old men (and one woman) who had wasted their lives in frivolous pursuits, and they come to the Professor seeking a second chance. He gives them the Fountain of Youth, and they become young and beautiful once again-- but have they learned their lesson? Heck, no; within a few minutes they're at each other's throats, engaging in the petty squabbles amd making the same mistakes they made the first time around.

This is the moral of Death Becomes Her, a supernatural black comedy from today's number-one slapstick Hollywood director, Robert Zemeckis. It doesn't matter how old or how beautiful you are--it's what you are on the inside that counts. We've heard this message before, of course. Supposedly, it's taught to us from day one, though in truth the idea of "beauty" is forced upon us by our very society, which believes that in order to be beautiful you have to be young and thin. Grow old and fat, and forget it--you're history.

The movie revolves around Meryl Streep, playing the character of Madeleine Ashton. She's an aging stage star, but she refuses to admit it: she is absolutely, completely obsessed with being young and beautiful. She applies enough makeup to herself to keep the whole cosmetics industry rolling in dough; she makes weekly trips to her plastic surgeon; and she still sees young men in order to promote the illusion that she's still young and beautiful. Of course, all of her efforts to stop aging are futile.

Goldie Hawn, meanwhile, is Helen Sharp, who has an obsession of her own. All her life, Madeleine Ashton has been stealing her boyfriends from her, and the last straw happens in 1978, when Maddy seduces and marries Ernest Menville, her fiance (played by Bruce Willis). This last one leaves Helen's life in shambles, to the point where she will do anything for revenge.

Cut to 1992. Madeleine is growing old fast, and Ernest is reduced to a drunken mortician who interns Hollywood corpses. Maddy's life is at a dead end--until she attends a party thrown by Helen, and sees that her rival has mysteriously remained young and beautiful. She has her revenge, it seems--and Maddy is willing to sell her soul to be young again.

Here's where Death Becomes Her takes off. Maddy meets an incarnation of the Devil himself, played with relish (and without much to wear) by Isabella Rossellini. She gives Maddy a potion that will let her live forever--*if* she takes good care of her body.

And so the stage is set. The two ladies begin fighting again like two cats on a fence, with poor Ernest caught in the middle. I don't want to spoil the comic moments (of which there are many), so let it suffice to say that this battle royale is a special effects extravaganza, where some scenes will make your eyes gape and you'll wonder "How'd he *do* that?"

Robert Zemeckis truly has a gift for comedy. Of the movies he's directed so far, his masterpiece was 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit." It's easy to see why: Zemeckis has the heart of a cartoon director. He can do slapstick in the style of the great comedians of old (and in the style of the Warner Bros. cartoons, too), and his sight gags and visual comedy style is superb. The special effects and the slapstick are where the laughs come from in Death Becomes Her: this is a live-action cartoon.

And here lies the movie's greatest fault: like a cartoon, there's nothing underneath the gags and the laughs. There's nothing *wrong* with the story, and the plot holds together quite well. Meryl Streep's performance is great, as she threatens to go over the top into comic farce but in fact remains firmly in control; Goldie Hawn easily holds her own and balances the movie nicely. Bruce Willis' role is good, if unexceptional. But the lessons and the "theme" of the movie (vanity will be your undoing) are laid out in the first five minutes of the film, and after that you can effectively shut off your brain and just laugh at the sight gags. This is a very funny movie--it's just not very "deep."

Death Becomes Her is good summer fare--despite its morbid subject, it's actually a very light-hearted comedy. It's better than most of the other big-budget movies to come out in 1992; there are no real flaws to spoil the audience's entertainment. Go see it; you'll get lots of laughs.

Just don't bother *thinking* about the movie afterwards.