Death Becomes Her, directed by the wizardly pop engineer Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit), has an original black-comic theme: It’s about the link between cosmetic surgery and rage—about the underlying connection between going under the knife to look young, beautiful, and ”perfect” and despising the wrinkled, aging specimen you’ve in fact become (not to mention anyone who looks better than you).
For a while, the movie has a sprightly cartoon meanness, as the spoiled actress Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) steals away the fiance of her former college pal, Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn). She does it out of spite and also because the fiance, faithful, gawky Ernest (Bruce Willis), happens to be a famous plastic surgeon—the ideal pushover mate for a Hollywood princess desperate to hold on to her looks. After several elaborate time leaps, the movie arrives at its true starting point: It’s 14 years later, Madeline and Ernest’s marriage is on the rocks, and Helen, now looking miraculously slim and sexy, has returned to seek vengeance. There follow many loud, snarling battles between the two women, visits to an otherworldly vamp who dispenses a magical youth potion (she’s played by Isabella Rossellini, slyly sending up her status as a cosmetics pitchwoman), more snarling, and more snarling still. If nothing else, Death Becomes Her qualifies as the most raucous catfight ever filmed.
As he proved in the great, overlooked 1980 farce Used Cars (starring Kurt Russell as a motor-mouth hustler), Zemeckis can do black comedy as well as anyone. Since then, however, something has happened to his filmmaking: It has become Spielbergized. Death Becomes Her takes its comic premise right to the edge—the characters turn into nip-and-tucked versions of the undead—but the film is too hyperactive to allow this blasphemy to bloom. Nearly every scene is slick and broad and triumphantly overstaged, like a production number. When the human-cartoon special effects arrive (Streep, having been pushed down the stairs, walking around with her head twisted backward; Hawn with a gaping hole right through her stomach), we react to the visual magic without necessarily feeling it’s adding much to the satirical mood. It’s just another selling point for the movie.
Some of Death Becomes Her is funny in a garish, grab-you-by-the-lapels way. Streep and Hawn clearly revel in the chance to let the bitchery fly. Yet since there’s nothing to the roles aside from scheming and insults, their hissy-fit rancor grows wearisome. The trouble with Death Becomes Her isn’t that its comic vision is too dark but that it has no shadings, no acerbic glee. Zemeckis gives nastiness such a hard sell he forgets to take any delight in it.