Sunday, April 10, 2016

Robert Zemeckis, part IX: The aging process


An hour plus of the finest possible Zemeckian slapstick sadly becomes a strident harangue in its final act; yet there's too much here that's good and even great to let this one go without a fight.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by Martin Donovan and David Koepp
With Meryl Streep (Madeline Ashton), Goldie Hawn (Helen Sharp), Bruce Willis (Dr. Ernest Menville), and Isabella Rossellini (Lisle Von Ruhman)

Spoiler alert: moderate

I wonder if the best way to explain Death Becomes Her is to describe it as a premise without a plot, which would be a little reductive but far punchier; or if I should call it a premise that is admirably coextensive with its plot, right up till the moment a second plot comes along, largely derailing the first and much more enjoyable plot, dropping its bland moral into the mix with all the entertainment value of watching someone take a straining shit, and (worst of all) snatching the protagonists' role away from its pair of firespitting female leads, and giving that role instead to the film's sole male figure, who has been defined almost exclusively till now as a completely worthless lump—and whose character grows not one noticeable inch to match his expanded narrative importance.

Likewise, no matter how many times I've seen Death (and this must be at least the fifth), I can never tell whether the film is supposed to be a well-intentioned satire about a society that values women as ornamentation and nothing else, and therefore has some sympathy for the complicity of its two female leads in their own enslavement—or if it's really only a mean-spirited polemic that instead takes aim at those women alone, intent solely upon demonstrating the depths of their stupid shallowness.

Realistically, it's trying very hard to be both; yet since those modes aren't quite as compatible as screenwriters Martin Donovan and David Koepp think, it winds up being a lot more like neither.

Still, if I had to come down on one side or another, Death answers my question for me, in the longeurs of its epilogue, some time after it has run out of ideas and has decided to coast into its ending almost solely upon the strength of its more misogynistic comedy.  The answer comes in dialogue, when we learn our manly hero has created an "Institute for the Study of Women"—in much the same way one might set up a foundation for the study of autism, or cancer.

But, as usual, I'm getting way ahead of myself—especially considering that Death is an example of the rare Robert Zemeckis B-side; and I'm surely not doing you any favors by assuming you've already seen it for yourself.

So, with a narrative this staggered in time, it's best to begin with our characters: there is Madeline Ashton, the actress, who has achieved fame and fortune but is cursed with childhood hurt feelings and a curdled vanity, so that no matter how much she achieves in life, she shall never obtain more than the briefest moment of satisfaction from any of it; there is Helen Sharp, Madeline's childhood friend and thus one of the primary drivers of her low self-worth, and whom Madeline has therefore spent many years tormenting in retaliation, to the point that Helen's been pushed over the edge into outright psychosis; and, completing our trio, there is Dr. Ernest Manville, the brilliant plastic surgeon who's recently gotten engaged to Helen—which ends (almost literally) the moment he meets his fiancee's glamorous actress friend.  We flash forward seven years, and Helen has become a fat depressed cat lady, thanks to Madeline, who has once again stolen her man—and this time she's married the poor son of a bitch.  "Poor son of a bitch" is right, though, because (once we catch up with Madeline, seven more years later) Ernest has devolved into an emasculated drunkard, switching careers from surgeon to mortician, no doubt due to some unexplained scandal.  Madeline, meanwhile, has grown all the more self-loathing herself, as age has begun to take its toll.

That's when Helen returns: as young (and as thin!) as ever, having reinvented herself as a great and famous author, and now with a long-nurtured plan to seduce Ernest back from her nemesis—and, with his assistance, murder the hell out of the woman who destroyed her life so many years before.  But plans never survive contact with the enemy, and never is that more the case than here, since Madline has lately become acquainted with the local sorceress of Beverly Hills—and imbibed a potion that has, as promised, given her "immortality."

She looks the trustworthy sort, don't you think?

Of course, Madeline learns the limitations of eternity the hard way when Ernest sends her on a trip down the stairs.  Indeed, she can still very much die—it's just that she keeps on living, her consciousness bound to an animated body bereft of a beating heart, flowing blood, or any capacity to repair itself when it (inevitably) winds up broken.  But when Helen arrives to try to finish the job Ernest started, it turns out that Madeline's not the only woman in the house to have had a session with the sorceress—and, soon, much to his great whinging befuddlement, Ernest shall find himself with two spiteful revenants on his hands.

Obviously, Death is simply the most high-pitched kind of farce, so whatever points Donovan and Koepp may or may not have wanted to make with their screenplay get largely pushed aside by what Zemeckis himself finds interesting about their scenario.  And it's exactly what you would expect Zemeckis to find interesting: namely, the many, many, many zany ways that you can inflict violence upon a human body that cannot feel pain, nor be killed—but can still be quite hilariously damaged.

As far as Zemeckian live-action cartoons go, it might well be the one most committed to the violation of physical law.  But relax; this is Peak Zemeckis.  He's long ago left behind the enervating nonsense of I Wanna Hold Your Hand; rather, for the first hour and change, we find the director's cartoon sensibilities refined to the sharpest point they'd ever take.  The barreling momentum the film acquires as it blasts through fourteen years of backstory in bold, broad strokes and a surfeit of crashing (and often hilarious) juxtapositions is outright miraculous: behold as the larger part of that plot synopsis is disposed of in less than twenty minutes.  And that's some time before we even get to the real meat of the film, as it were—the special-effects driven horror-comedy.

Death sees Zemeckis joined, once again, by his long-time cinematographer, Dean Cundey.  It was their very last feature collaboration; but the good news is that Zemeckis and Cundey end their relationship together on one of their highest notes.  Even Death's more prosaic gestures are worth talking about: the subtle slow-motion of Helen taking Ernest through her fantasy of how their perfect murder will work out; the warped, semi-Expressionist lensing of the whole piece; the frankly unbelievable number of mirror shots, which so diligently beat you over the head with the movie's Big Themes (whatever they actually are) that you begin to appreciate the trouble Zemeckis and Cundey took to make them so obvious.  And then there are the equally unbelievable number of trick shots Cundey had to set up: taking the special photography of Back to the Future Part II to the next level, Death still remains something of a technical marvel—not always completely convincing, but seriously Goddamned fun to watch, as holes get blasted in Goldie Hawn, and Meryl Streep blithely walks around with her head on backwards.  Indeed, in my favorite shot, we find Cundey reaching back into his primordial past and pulling a focal plane gambit directly from his work on Halloween; if anything, I like it even more here, because the wreck of Madeline's body gaining detail as it approaches the camera is honestly more upsetting than watching Michael Myers simply stand up for the thirtieth time after being stabbed.

(But if I don't mention Rick Carter, Zemeckis' now-regular production designer, I'll feel terrible: the action of Death revolves principally around Madeline's Beverly Hills mansion and the sorceress' even bigger Beverly Hills mansion—you would probably feel comfortable calling that one a castle—and they are far, far lusher than you would ever expect to find in a comedy, even a big high-concept comedy that only escapes being a product of the 1980s by an accident of chronology.  Carter's sets tether the goofier aspects of the film to a legitimate sense of Gothic horror—and, at the same time, they are a subtle reminder, alongside the gaudy reminder represented by the special effects, that studios will sometimes throw huge amounts of money at the weirdest things.)

As long as we're still figuring out just what kind of movie Death is—noir? horror? slapstick comedy? all three?—the film is absolute dynamite, amongst the very best things Zemeckis has ever done, and probably even the funniest.  And while it seems like a movie largely devoted to inflicting terrifying injuries upon its female leads should feel, at best, like the guiltiest pleasure, you never actually get that sense in the film's first phase.  (In fact, you half-regret the PG-13 rating; not that Zemeckis ever had any particular affinity for true gore, but I'd at least be curious to see what the film would look like without any hint of restraint.)

It helps, I'm sure, that we have such perfect performances to bring these dead women back to life: Streep would complain about the cold, technological feel of the shoot, but there's nothing but the full-tilt commitment of a true professional on the screen; Hawn slinks around evoking insanity in her typical high-energy idiom; and then there's Isabella Rossellini, as the broker of immortality, and she steals every scene she's in.  That's probably the direct result of the fact that she's 80% percent naked 90% of the time; but she does it with such a pronounced lack of self-consciousness that it adds up to just the most salient aspect of a wonderfully ultra-camp character.  (Plus, she gets the single best reaction shot in a film that's naturally chock full of great reaction shots: it's her snappish glare when Helen answers her question, "How old would you guess I am?  Come on, don't try to flatter me", with the words "Thirty-eight."  But it's especially funny when you realize—quite implausibly—that, at the time of filming, Rossellini was thirty-eight.)  Oh, and there's Bruce Willis, too, as weak-willed Ernest, reminding us that his talents lay in comedy as much as they ever did in action.

But eventually, with no more comedy to be wrung from the basic triangle, the film derails itself, switching tracks awkwardly to deliver its eye-rolling morality play.  It simply doesn't work, and although there are still good gags—Zemeckis and the actors are too funny to let the thing just wither—it's nothing as good as what came before, on top of its sin of casting the one man in the whole picture as the mouthpiece for the (male) screenwriters and what they must have believed was their clearer-headed sense of ethics.  Up till this point, Death's managed to have the best of both worlds: it's gotten to treat its female leads like punching bags and get across a sense of why they act this way—that early scene where Helen is rejected by her boy-toy is one of the few moments that actively breaks with the film's overriding silliness, and it does it in the best possible way, because afterwards it's kind of impossible not to feel like her vanity is an incredibly human thing (not even, necessarily, a specifically female thing).  Thus, when the last twenty minutes or so of Death throws its humanity in the garbage, it's hard to avoid being very disappointed in it.

It's not nearly enough to kill the deranged joy I get from this wicked little thing, though.  I'll no doubt watch Death Becomes Her five more times before I, too, finally fall apart and die, and that's got everything to do with our man Zemeckis: his perfect ability to fuse comedy and spectacle into glorious entertainment.  If it's not the slightest kind of masterpiece, it nevertheless came from an era where the man could do virtually nothing wrong at all.

Score:  7/10

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