A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Death Becomes Her is a 1992 macabre comedy about a deadly threesome: two vain female frenemies and the man whose life they jointly ruined. Excessive drinking is shown. So is a potion that brings back youth but also bestows immortality, which, it turns out, isn't as fun as it sounds. Language includes "s--t," "t-ts," and "bitch." A woman has an affair with a younger man, who is cheating on her. Bare buttocks are seen for a few seconds. Impotence is discussed. Violence is played for comedy. A man and woman plot to kill someone. A man chokes a woman, then lets her fall down a long flight of stairs.
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What's the story?
In DEATH BECOMES HER, Madeline (Meryl Streep) is an aging movie star approaching the All About Eve stage of her career. Fewer leading roles are coming her way and, like many women in their 50s and beyond, she is beginning to feel "invisible" in Los Angeles' youth-obsessed culture. Mousey and retiring wannabe writer friend Helen (Goldie Hawn) loses her fiancé plastic surgeon Ernest (Bruce Willis) to the rapacious and glamorous Madeline. Then Helen spends years stewing and plotting revenge. She roars back into Madeline and Ernest's life 12 years later as a best-selling author who looks like a movie star herself -- trim, youthful, and gorgeous -- to find that Ernest and Madeline's marriage hasn't gone well. Madeline has a younger lover, and the whole situation has driven Ernest to find solace in large amounts of alcohol. When Helen reappears, she quickly persuades Ernest to help her knock Madeline off. Meanwhile, the spectacular Lisle (Isabella Rossellini), provider of a youth and immortality serum to the elite, persuades Madeline to join her secret cult. Madeline chugs a vial and immediately, through the wonders of CGI, loses her wrinkles and regains her waistline. It's not until Ernest manages to kill her that she learns about the serum's accompanying undead problem. Ernest chokes her and then lets her fall down the stairs to what seems to be her death. But she gets up, her broken neck twisted 180 degrees round, and discovers that she is incapable of dying. Helen meets a similar fate, ending up with a giant shotgun hole in the middle of her abdomen. She's had the potion, too, it seems, and although the two can't die, they do start to deteriorate. Ernest regularly spray paints them to keep the decay and mottling from showing. Eventually Ernest, the moral center of the film, escapes from the shrews, and they are left with each other for what appears to be a bickering, comically nasty eternity.
Is it any good?
This movie was not generally well reviewed in 1992, but all those critics were wrong: This is an over-the-top comic classic. Streep, Hawn, Willis, and Rossellini deliver the goods as they ham it up through this one-of-a-kind side show of a movie. Listen for Alan Sylvestris' melodramatic score and admire David Koepp and Martin Donovan's searing and witty dialogue and plotting. Like the scripts for a few other classic comedies -- Moonstruck and The Sunshine Boys come to mind -- Death Becomes Her is perfect. The fun is accompanied by substance: The script, direction, and performances ruthlessly depict narcissistic protagonists in a narcissistic universe. Director Zemeckis infuses this romp with deliciously ghoulish glee.
The movie is a powerful and hilarious satire on a culture obsessed with youth, good looks, body image, and self-absorption. Plastic surgery, eternal youth magic potions, disloyalty, and murderous selfishness are all mercilessly on display. While the obsessions are taken to absurdist extremes, its subjects are as current as ever -- this feels more like a reality show than satire. The movie unquestionably promotes a view that people this concerned with their appearances are to be disdained, but it also jokingly suggests that most of the wealthy and famous in New York and Hollywood are like this: well-preserved, immortal, and enjoying private life after death somewhere comfortable. It's a fantasy notion that will give families lots to talk about.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about what elements in the media have contributed to making the worship of and longing for youth so strong and so generally accepted today. Death Becomes Her predates the Kardashians on television by 15 years. Do you think TV shows and online emphasis on plastic surgery and weight loss have altered the general public's perception of what looks "normal"?
How does this movie manage to embrace and exemplify vanity and the need to look young at the same time as mocking such concerns?
This comedy cleverly encourages viewers to both see the two selfish, murderous, shallow protagonists for exactly who they are and give us reason to root for them. Do you think social pressures on women to conform to certain norms of beauty play some role in the irrational lengths that Helen and Madeline go to to preserve their attractiveness?
- In theaters: July 31, 1992
- On DVD or streaming: January 20, 1998
- Cast: Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, Bruce Willis, Isabella Rossellini
- Director: Robert Zemeckis
- Studio: Universal Studios Home Entertainment
- Genre: Comedy
- Run time: 104 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: for some nudity and off-color humor
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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