Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, Bruce Willis, Isabella Rossellini

Director Robert Zemeckis is best known for his Back to the Future trilogy, as well as for Who Framed Roger Rabbit? In the Disneyesque Death Becomes Her, he is dealing with people who have intimations of the future but, thanks a lot, they'll take the past. Streep plays an actress, first seen strutting through a hilariously awful production number in a musical Sweet Bird of Youth. Conniving, vain and terrified of aging, she steals the plastic surgeon fiancé (Willis) of dowdy friend and rival Hawn, who grows obese, goes mad and vows revenge.

Flash forward a decade or so: Streep is trapped in an aging body and is a bitter half in a sniping marriage to the now alcoholic, broken-down Willis, a sought-after makeup artist for corpses (his secret: industrial strength spray paint). Invited to attend a party celebrating publication of Hawn's book Forever Young, Streep sees it as an opportunity to have another laugh at the expense of her fat, forlorn friend. But time has seemingly been curiously kind to Hawn; she's still svelte and gorgeous and doesn't look a day over 30.

Hysterical, Streep hurls herself into the care of Rossellini, an enigmatic sorceress who presents a potion that reverses the aging process. What she doesn't bother to mention is the tonic's side effect. It creates a state of life after death in bodies that are often the worse for wear. Streep, Hawn and Willis all acquire that information on their own—in disquieting fashion.

Throughout, screenwriters David Koepp and Martin Donovan would have done well to keep their skewed, scabrous vision in sharper focus and to display satire that rises to the level of a scene in which Rossellini is throwing a party for her myriad clients, among them Elvis Presley and Andy Warhol. Those in the crowd who've faked their own deaths are enjoined against making a sudden public appearance "just to grab a few headlines."

Outside its funniest segments, Death Becomes Her has a few aimless stretches, and the feline squabbles between Streep and Hawn reflect a predictable Alexis-Krystle Carrington kind of bitchery. But there are flashes of originality, brilliant special effects and terrific performances—Willis as a curdled Milquetoast and Hawn as a woman who is finally feeling her own power. Streep makes a fine untamed shrew, by turns shrill, whiny and cooing. She, Hawn and Zemeckis combine to offer a fearsome look at what, under different circumstances, might well have happened to Baby Jane. (PG-13)

  • Contributors:
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Leah Rozen,
  • Joanne Kaufman.