Very much like its heroines, Robert Zemeckis’ Death Becomes Her (1992) is pulled in a few too many directions. Here is the story of two vain aging rivals who drink a potion to remain young and gorgeous forever at the expense of their lives. The potion stops the aging process, but it doesn’t ward against decomposition so while they appear to be suspended in youth, they are really slowly falling apart;the same can be said for the movie as it barrels toward its manic conclusion.
Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) is a conceited actress who is constantly competing with her best frenemy, Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn). The two are endlessly stealing boyfriends and can hardly hide their animosity toward each other (they’ve given each other the pet names Mad and Hel). Helen is engaged to a successful plastic surgeon named Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis), and when Madeline pries him away, Helen’s psyche has had enough. After a slow descent into portliness, she suffers a nervous breakdown, resulting in a psychiatric stay.
Years later, we find that Ernest’s and Madeline’s marriage has not been a happy one, as Madeline’s casual affairs and bitter anger after the end of her career have driven Ernest to alcohol. Madeline has aged relatively gracefully but not gracefully enough for her delicate vanity, and she tries every available beauty regimen and snarlingly demands that the maid tell her daily how young she looks. Suddenly, Helen walks back into their lives, successful and looking better than she did even all those years ago, a fact that sends Madeline into a furious fit of jealousy and the miserable Ernest straight into her arms.
Madeline discovers Helen’s secret: a mysterious woman named Lisle Von Rhuman (Isabella Rossellini) who gives out a miracle potion from her Gothic Mulholland mansion. Dazzled by its effects, Madeline drinks the potion before understanding it’s side effects, which remain unnoticed by her until Ernest pushes her down a flight of stairs during a heated argument. The fall should have killed her as it twisted her head 180 degrees, yet she finds herself alive, in very little pain and capable of walking and talking with her head positioned like Linda Blair’s. This is disconcerting to Madeline but horrifying to Ernest, who, as a doctor knows how improbable Madeline’s state is.
From here, a movie which has already been walking a line of instability goes completely off the rails as the two undead beauties first try to kill each other, then, having discovered the futility of that proposition and that they are slowly rotting, team up to get Ernest to drink the potion so he can treat their decomposing bodies in perpetuity.
The movie is all camp, which can be fun as Streep and Hawn try to out-ham each other, but the script isn’t good enough for that to sustain the entire movie. The biggest problem is that Madeline and Helen aren’t consistent; their moods and allegiances switch whenever the story requires it. Streep is painted as a fire-eyed hellion for the first half of the movie then she becomes headstrong but agreeable as she and Ernest incredulously bond over her remarkable deadness, then she’s a fire cat again when she takes sides with Helen.
For her part, Helen is drawn as a sad sack victim, then heedlessly devious, until she also quickly enters into her alliance with Madeline, a partnership that feels born out of a screenwriter’s head more than the natures of the two characters. These shifting sands give Hawn and Streep, who don’t need an excuse to go big, ample opportunity to overact, which is all in good fun for awhile but ultimately grows tiresome. Worse, Willis is similarly all over the place, going from our surrogate into the lives of these crazy people to a manic Dr. Frankenstein type and back to being our conduit.
Still, the movie has a number of charms, not the least of which is Isabella Rosselini’s vampy mystery woman, a dead ringer for Louise Brooks with a penchant for wearing only necklaces instead of shirts. Sidney Pollack makes an appearance as an ER doctor dumbfounded that a woman with no heartbeat and a temperature below 80 is sitting on his exam table and talking to him. There are few people better than Zemeckis at using special effects (his Forrest Gump  and certainly Who Framed Roger Rabbit  are textbooks on how to use movie magic to awe but not distract), and he does a good job here of getting the right mileage out of the effects as Madeline’s and Helen’s bodies get progressively worse for the wear. He also adds a number of sly visual gags, reminiscent of the real celebrity and cartoon cameos that enriched Gump and Roger, as we discover that Lisle also sold the potion to the likes of Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean (though this causes some confusion about how the potion works as the celebrities appear to be in great shape while Madeline and Helen begin decomposing almost immediately).
The problem isn’t the people involved, but that they give their all for a story that didn’t have much life in it to begin with. We’ve got two shallow egotists and a drunk, none of which are terribly interesting, so it’s hard to get too invested in what’s going to happen to them. Death Becomes Her is made by enough professionals to give it a pulse, which is more than we can say for Helen and Madeline, but it never gets much better than barely alive.