Death Becomes Her Review
Robert Zemeckis has never been as big as his movies. Whereas the likes of John Carpenter and Wes Craven will proudly display their names above titles of films they’ve either directed, or produced, it becomes clear they are their films. Zemeckis has his directorial traits but they are less obvious or exaggerated as say Brian De Palma or Martin Scorsese, however he hasn’t necessarily had less success. He’s had a similar career in terms of output as Lucas and Spielberg yet they are household names, whereas most people when asked the question of what films he had made, would look glumly, and say ‘Robert who…?’ Zemeckis’ problem is that he sits on the fence. He rarely pushes his films to break new boundaries (the dual-reality in Back To The Future Part 2 and some excellent use of special effects in most of his films, not withstanding), and stays clear of making statements other than universally accepted ones. Probably the major flaw in Forrest Gump was that it lost the social satire that made the book so appealing. And, in Zemeckis’ crown and glory, Back To The Future has been criticised for its climax being too warm, and saccharine. However, Cast Away proved he was willing to experiment, even though it wasn’t a total success, and it was backed up by the Hitchcock-esque What Lies Beneath that not only worked perfectly, but is one of the best psychological thriller’s since Seven. Zemeckis’ real gift is bringing to the screen fantastical, original stories and here, in his best film after Back To The Future, he creates a bitingly dry, black comedy looking at youth and beauty, revenge, and greed.
Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) is a rich, famous stage actress who comes to the attentions of her old friend’s fiancée. Her friend, knowing how Madeline had taken her lovers before, wants to test the water with her latest, just to see if her rich counterpart can work her charms this time. Helen (Goldie Hawn) takes fiancée, Ernest (Bruce Willis) backstage to meet Madeline and immediately he falls for her beauty, her charm and her status. Madeline and Ernest end up marrying and Helen is left all alone. Fourteen years later and all has changed. Madeline and Ernest are still living together but she is caught up in trying to regain the beauty the years had taken from her, while he is stuck in a depression fueled by alcohol. They are both invited to a book opening party of which the writer happens to be Helen, and when they get there they are bewildered to find Helen looking much younger than her years, and stunningly beautiful. We learn that Helen didn’t invite them for a friendly catch-up, but to get revenge for what they both did to her. Helen tries to use her alluring beauty to unwittingly get Ernest under her thumb, and use him to kill Madeline. Meanwhile, Madeline soon learns that Helen’s young looks had come from something ‘otherworldly’, and is quickly on to her cunning, with Ernest stuck right in the middle.
Zemeckis mixes dry humour with fantasy, and the combination works delightfully. The obsession with looks, fashion and being beautiful that plagues Hollywood is nicely examined, in a dark, comic book style. The film is set in Beverly Hills, and it seems the perfect place to play-out, what is perhaps an over-the-top plot, but when compared to some of the things a surgeon’s knife can do for ‘looks’ these days, it is not all that outrageous. The director sites the fantasy in the film as an exaggerated element of the vanity that is so prevalent in Californian culture. ‘Greed’ shows us that if you have the money, age can be defied, yet the film’s OTT way of presenting this – a magic portion, suggests that what a surgeon can offer is simply a temporary mask, not a cure. The ‘revenge’ aspect of the film doesn’t quite materialise as well as one would hope, but does give a good indication of what people go to in the quest for beauty.
Zemeckis isn’t afraid to tell a good story, no matter what time span in ‘real’ life it takes up. Back To The Future, as a trilogy, expanded across a hundred and thirty years. Likewise, Forrest Gump lasted a lifetime, and in Death Becomes Her, we are led through fourteen years. It’s the telling of a good, almost bedtime, story that makes his films so interesting, and re-watchable. His films are rooted in child fantasy, with the simple yet largely unbelievable elements becoming the most anticipated and enjoyable. Whether it be time-travel, heroes and villains (Romancing The Stone), cartoon gangsters (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), murder-mystery (What Lies Beneath), being stranded on a desert island (Cast Away) or messages from outer space (Contact), he never fails to bring the fantastical to the screen, with quality and assurance. Likewise, this black comedy is given an almost comic-book appearance. The characters have very defined appearances from Ernest’s shaped moustache and distinct glasses, to Isabella Rossellini’s character’s mystical dress and perfected hairstyle. The comic-book style stretches to the set design also, with Ernest and Madeline’s mansion dark but alluring, painted in reds and browns. The driveway is superbly gothic and Ernest’s eventual operating room gives him a ‘mad scientist’ look, only to be added to by a line that pays homage to the great Dr. Frankenstein. The violence is also elaborately cartoon in nature, with Helen’s ‘I’ve got a hole in my stomach’ line reminiscent of Tom’s failing attempts to trap Jerry, because whatever happened to the poor cat, he always survived in the old Tom and Jerry cartoons.
Martin Donovan and writer-for-hire David Koepp, keep the humour coming but maintain a biting, dry edge to it. They concoct some spitefully, dark lines that luckily the actors pull off with aplomb. One that springs to mind comes after Madeline is telling Ernest how she was so scared, and how she fainted and didn’t know where was, before she glimpses around and notices she is lying in a body bag, ‘Ernest….I’m in the morgue!?!’. The script does struggle with the two ladies hatred for each other, for while separately for the most part, we get a good sense of what divides them, their taste for revenge loses its impact and becomes second fiddle to other plot points. What the script does get perfectly right is its characterisations, with Helen having a lifelong distaste of her counterpart Madeline. Goldie Hawn is perfectly cast, giving the character a psychotic twinge balanced with a sensuous allurement. Madeline is the super-bitch who has been shrouded in everything she ever wanted apart from friends. Meryl Streep is also excellent with supreme comic timing. She gives Madeline a slut image, stripping her of heart and soul, giving her, the coldest of cold postures. It is also interesting to note how, when it comes to self-preservation, she can switch on the charm and give the character a fake heart, emphasising her greed and selfishness. And Ernest, the quivering, on edge, ex-plastic surgeon is a depressed but colourful character. Bruce Willis’ comedy talents are a little underrated as he is on top form in this film, shrouding the middle-aged man in a madcap, cartoon tone. His gibbering, quick paced words to himself verge on madness, while his ‘Oh my gosh, Helen, what are you doing here?’ ponders on the lovable. The three main characters are all perfectly balanced, each bringing another dimension to the story and Zemeckis blends them superbly. Are we watching a love triangle, or a multi-faceted murder plot? It’s all wonderful, to see pan out.
Dean Cundey deserves to be mentioned for his cinematography which, as mentioned, brilliantly gives the film a comic book feel. He also frames many shots as they would appear in a comic book, displaying a lot of expositional information while retaining a pivotal point. Like for example, a lovely shot after we see Madeline shoot Helen from point blank range in the stomach. Helen stands up, and we see through the gaping hole in her stomach, and see Madeline and Ernest looking back in dismay that she is still alive. Alan Silvestri’s score is wonderfully in keeping with the style of the movie, as he creates an enchanting but cold murder-mystery tone that nicely overplays many scenes for comic appeal, and adds to the cartoon-like style. The special effects are also excellent from the digital (Helen walking around with a gaping hole in her stomach) to the prosthetic (Madeline’s head being pummeled into her body so that only her eyes and forehead can be seen).
Overall, this is an excellent black comedy that boasts the talents of three A-list actors on top form. The plot may lose its way a little in the middle but the film maintains dry wit, and a dark edge throughout. Its wonderful comic book feel gives it an originality, and a refreshing longevity, while Zemeckis again takes his audience into a superbly crafted fantasy world.
The picture is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 but lacks anamorphic enhancement. Unfortunately, the lack of an anamorphic picture isn’t the only problem as it is riddled with grain, and has some artefacting throughout. It lacks clarity and detail, and everything feels a little muted. Colours are for the most part, very good with black level perfect. Colour in the film is very distinguished and this is presented well on the disc. The print seems to be in fairly good condition apart from the grain with no notable damage.
The sound is presented as Dolby Digital 2.0. The lack of a 5.1 track is very disappointing as it would have added to the film, but the two-channel just about does a decent job. Ambient sounds fill the speakers giving an enveloping feeling, but dialogue is mainly centered. Dialogue is fairly clear without ever being perfect. I got the feeling that a lot more could have been done to improve the sound, so this is annoying. Silvestri’s score does sound fantastic though, when playing in all the speakers.
Behind The Scenes (9 mins) - This is actually quite good, even though it does have a very short running time. While it contains the usual ‘go see this great movie’ type stuff, we do get the see interviews with all the principle cast and the director. There is some interesting information on the production, especially the special effects, and some nice footage from behind the scenes.
Production Notes - These are interesting and informative, but a half hour documentary would have been much better.
Cast and Crew Biographies - Bios and film highlights for Goldie Hawn, Bruce Willis, Meryl Streep, Isabella Rossellini, and director Robert Zemeckis.
Theatrical Trailer - Zemeckis’ films lend themselves to good trailers, and this is no exception. Funny, dark and in keeping with the film’s tone, this is a good trailer. The bad thing is, it shows many scenes that didn’t make the final cut and they are both funny, and very intriguing. It again shows a missed opportunity in terms of what could have been put on this DVD.
One of Robert Zemeckis’ best films isn’t given the DVD treatment it deserves. However, the DVD isn’t worth disregarding altogether, as it is still a distinct step up from VHS, and the film is definitely worth seeing. At a good price, this film represents many happy return viewings, as well as welcomes new fans into its dark, twisted, fantastical world.