Parody films are a grey area for me – if only because in most cases these films tend to rely heavily on tropes and ideas without really addressing their own shortcomings. But that didn’t stop Back to the Future director Zemeckis from throwing his take on the genre into the mix; with 1992’s surrealist comedy Death Becomes Her. Packed with an all star cast and a titillating vision of Hollywood high society – does the film stand up?
Death Becomes Her tells of the rivalry between Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) and Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn). Madeline steals Helen’s doting husband Ernest (Bruce Willis) for herself; sending Helen into a 7 year spiral of depression where she becomes insanely obsessed with killing Madeline. Fast forward many more years and we see that Madeline’s and Ernest;s marriage is a catacomb of horrors – the two detest each other openly with Madeline resenting her dwindling appearance through old age. Here Helen re-emerges – looking more youthful and beautiful than ever – driving Madeline into a secret club where the rich and famous never die by drinking a potion. The ensuing film is the consequences of this as the film takes aim at Hollywood vanity.
The first thing that has to be mentioned about Death Becomes Her is that it never takes itself too seriously. Throughout proceedings there’s an air of absurdity that hangs over the whole thing and manages to keep the entire film from ever too heavy. Even as characters lop whole body parts off and wake up in morgues – the tone never really lets up as the absurdity rises. It’s the flair in vanity, the absurdity of watching Madeline drink her immortality potion and seeing her sagging boobs prop themselves back up which makes the film tolerable. It’s watching two women who can’t harm each other engage in an over the top set piece which ultimately makes them realise that they’ve elevated their rivalry way beyond reasonable means and subvert it all the way back around to friendship.
The premise is one long parody and the film is constantly winking at the audience – the characters never aware that they are just parodies being hyper extended. Everything from the beauty clinic through to the rehab scenes is a cleverly conveyed to the audience and it’s through these that we see the plot develop. By the second act the film extends itself to over the top set pieces – creating clever imagery and leveling the absurdity of proceedings with a clever underlying feeling of “this would probably happen in LA”. The film itself is beautifully shot throughout with Zemeckis coming off his Back to Future binge to direct proceedings. It’s very clear no matter what your position on the film that everyone involved was having a good laugh with proceedings.
With all this being said, the huge pink elephant of the film is that Bruce Willis feels somewhat miscast in his role. He gives it a good try but he never manages to escape the shadow of the two titans he’s sharing the screen with. Instead he sticks with one tone throughout the film and never really gives the kind of performance needed to elevate his character. This wouldn’t be a problem except the film positions his character as the grounded one – the person the audience is intended to empathize with the most but we end up brushing him away thanks to this performance. It robs the film of its human element and also arguably causes the film to suffer greatly when it comes to exploring his character more (But we’ll get to that in a minute).
No it’s Meryl and Goldie’s performances that end up carrying Death Becomes Her and are brilliantly framed to match the tone. The two play their roles wonderfully and raise their game when the script calls for it – their characters retorts wonderfully sharp. The only unfortunate thing about this film is that outside of these three characters there really isn’t that much to say about the movie. Other characters exist but we learn so little about them that they just fade into the background – intentionally kept as vague as possible so as not to distract from proceedings. I can’t decide if this was intentionally designed to emphasise how Hollywood is a lonely town or if it’s a failing in the script.
By the third act proceedings descend into open melodrama and I’d argue this is the films weakest point – if only because the parody creeps into openly mocking Hollywood culture which it doesn’t handle so brilliantly. It’s a shame because the previous two acts manage to ramp the absurdity to fun with zest. The third act though is a sprawling mess of moving parts that never click together – attempting to ramp up the scope and size of the film by throwing in references and nods to a level which drowns the movie out. The film decides suddenly that Ernest is the character that should push the plot forward; thus giving Bruce Willis something more action-y to chew on. Had Willis given a more varied performance this whole section may have worked better but by relying so heavily on him – the film creaks and strains. It’s all a bit dull in honesty and comes across with the feeling that it should have wrapped up 30 minutes ago.
Overall, Death Becomes Her is a fun film and an amusingly realization it’s not just modern Hollywood which carries the air of absurdity. It’s just a shame that the films early momentum runs out of steam while the cleverness that tied it all together gives way to some lackluster parodies that feel somewhat shameless in their attempt to keep the audience’s attention. Taken as a whole – the film is a good laugh and holds up both visually and in terms of reference. It’s a shame this film didn’t find a wider audience – in modern internet culture it’d be positively adored.