DEATH BECOMES HER, 1992
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis, Goldie Hawn
Review by Matthew Toffolo
When a woman learns of an immortality treatment, she sees it as a way to outdo her long-time rival.
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This is a very polarizing film. I've talk to many people who loved it and many people who despised it. That always gets my attention when there are two forces on such opposite ends making an opinion about something. So I decided to check it out and see what all the fuss was. Plus, I've always been a fan of director Robert Zemeckis. A guy who takes a lot of chances and likes to mix genres while also playing with special effects.
Two of his most popular films, Back to the Future (plus its sequels) and Romancing the Stone mix the action genre with comedy in a very timely fashion. You can almost say the same about his Oscar winning film Forrest Gump. In Death Becomes Her, Zemeckis does the same with a little fantasy mixed in. But it's the special effects that stand out in this film and that's the issue people have with it. It either works or it doesn't work.
Death Becomes Her did win an Oscar for Best Special Effects, but watching again in 2009, 17 years after it was filmed, it really doesn't stand the test of time. It's really distracting because it can be done so much better right now. But it's what Zemeckis does as this was the first film to use effects like that, just like he currently did with 3D in his last film Beowulf. He's raises the bar for future filmmakers to also attempt to do the same in their future films.
But like great architecture, it's not the first unique building that's put up that's remembered, but usually the 2nd or 3rd attempt at same uniqueness. That's because whenever you go first, there are always mistakes that happen because it's the first time. And when the 2nd person goes, he or she can make sure those mistakes don't happen while also using that same unique idea.
Death Becomes Her reminds me of my older sister. She was a bit of a rebel like I was in high school and always snuck out of the house, did drugs, smoked etc..., to attempt to express herself in this zany world we live in. But she always got caught by my parents because she did the dumbest things. By the time I entered my awkward high school years, I never got caught for anything because learned what not to do from my sister. This film doesn't work in our 21st century world but in order for future films to work like this, someone needs to go first.
Robert Zemeckis has courage and you must admire him for that.
Another risky endeavor in Death Becomes Her is its casting choices. All three leads play roles that they aren't accustumed to. Especially Bruce Willis who always uses his charm to pull off performances. But in Death Becomes Her he must play the comedic straightman who has no charm. So there isn't one moment of that usual Willis smirk where he usually captivates the scene. This was another great attempt at something new for Willis, but I don't think it really worked.
Meryl Streep dominates this film and is extremely funny in it playing the confident but deeply insecure aging actress obsessed with age. She nails all the comedic beats presented to her in the script plus adds a few more. Co-Star Goldie Hawn was quoted as saying that "Meryl is a freak. No she's not a freak, she's from outer space. No actor can do what she does."
This film marked the end of Streep's comedic body of work. She previously did She-Devil (very underrated film), Postcards from the Edge, Defending Your Life back to back to back before finishing her funny run with Death Becomes Her. It's a curious time in her career as all four of those performances centered on her character's obsessiveness of aging and her insecurities of the situation. It was like she was getting over her own issues of age by playing these comedic roles.
Another interesting thing about this film was how they switched main characters deep into the 2nd act. The film is Goldie Hawn's character at the beginning as directorially we see things from her perspective. Then at the halfway point of the film it switches to Meryl Streep's character and we then see things from her point of view. Also, the conventional roles of protagonist (good person) and antagonist (bad person) are switched as well. Hawn is the person we root for and then it's set up for the audience to root against her and vice/vera for Streep. And in the end our protagonists end up the antagonists and therefore the audience doesn't know what to feel about this film. It's not a film where anyone wins out as our two leads really lose everything.
Death Becomes Her is a must see film in many ways because it did indeed raise a lot of bars for Hollywood storytelling and filmmaking. Plus it has Meryl Streep in it, who is always fun to see.