Monday, November 30, 2009
In Violation Of Every Natural Law
I’m not really sure what to say about Robert Zemeckis anymore. At times a near master when it comes to comedy, to pacing, to experimentation in the field of special effects, he’s now fallen down the rabbit hole of that whole 3D mo-cap thing and seemingly abandoned the concept of focusing on story in favor of what new mind-blowing visual he can toss into his stew. I’ve seen his version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL and you know what? I don’t care. I’m not impressed by this type of thing anymore and I’d just as soon not be forced to wear those damn 3D glasses ever again. What was a fascinating gimmick when he made THE POLAR EXPRESS has now gotten old fast even if the technology has improved. Not to mention that in making A CHRISTMAS CAROL he’s gone with a story that everyone on the planet has already seen a thousand times and all this former master of screenplay structure has added to it are scenes of Jim Carrey’s Scrooge shooting around the sky like he’s on a rollercoaster. All that results from all this sound and fury is a waste of my time. This is the man who made I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND which gave the world the romantic pairing of Eddie Deezen and Wendie Jo Sperber—doesn’t he know that no technological development will ever possibly be as amazing as that? I guess I have to accept that he sees things differently from how I do. But I still don’t care.
But we still have those films from years past where the director actually decided to use human actors in front of his camera and make, you know, a movie. Years after I first saw it on opening day in 1992, I’m still not quite sure where to place DEATH BECOMES HER in his filmography. Coming between the completion of the BACK TO THE FUTURE trilogy and his critical/boxoffice triumph with FORREST GUMP, DEATH BECOMES HER now plays as a stopover from one act of his career to the other. It finds him continuing to dwell in the arena of dark comedy that he had played in a few times in the past while truly pushing the boundaries of what was possible with visual effects, something he has continued to do ever since. And one thing you can certainly say about this film is that the effects this time around at the very least genuinely add to the story being told. The problem, however, is his approach to the story which proves more than a little problematic and these tonal issues were most likely the reason for certain eleventh-hour fixes that occurred. It’s certainly a well-paced, enjoyable movie to sit through but as it goes on something becomes increasingly sour about it all. I don’t think this is a case of the director and everyone involved losing interest in the story being told so much as losing control of it.
After writer Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn) introduces her fiancée Dr. Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis) to famous actress Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep), the longtime rival between the two women results in Madeline marrying Ernest away from her. Years later, long after Helen has undergone a complete breakdown, Madeline and Ernest are living in wedded hell in Beverly Hills, her acting career over as she tries to hold on to her faded looks and Ernest reduced to drinking and working as a high-end mortician. When Helen reemerges as a successful author looking better than ever, Madeline’s jealousy rears its head again and she takes drastic action, courtesy of the exotic and mysterious Lisle von Rhoman (Isabella Rossellini)—a magical potion that allows the person who drinks it to have their aging process reversed and then live forever. But certain developments arising from what Ernest and Helen have planned complicate matters and though she might be immortal, her body is of considerably more fragile. Not to mention that it turns out that Madeline and Helen currently have more in common than they first realize.
It moves so fast that it certainly never becomes boring and there are genuine laughs throughout but within its technical ambition and thematic goals, DEATH BECOMES HER winds up feeling kind of empty. Actually, it’s a little strange to be saying that because watching DEATH BECOMES HER for the first time in a while, I did get a certain amount of pleasure from it. In addition to the at-times sharp humor, it’s continually engaging to look at and the actors are all game. But there’s such intelligence behind the filmmaking, such ambition, that it’s too bad that it’s not more satisfying in the end. There’s huge possibility in the material, written by Martin Donovan & David Koepp, with great amounts of clever dialogue and there’s a lot to mine in exploring the ugliness of beauty, particularly when a place like Beverly Hills comes into the picture. It’s certainly thematically consistent throughout, that’s for sure. But Zemeckis spends so much time focusing on not only the effects but the precision of every single extended take that the humor is sometimes lost in the extreme approach. There is at times extreme use of mirrors during those long shots, a concept which is attention-getting and certainly keeps a motif going but it doesn’t necessarily add to the satire or make it a more satisfying story. There are definite echoes of other Zemeckis films in its use of the passage of time as well as, more specifically, some of the ideas in the darker future portrayed in BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II, but I still wish that there was something more enriching to it. All throughout are the biggest, most opulent sets imaginable but what if it had a more naturalistic setting and paid more attention to the story but still contained the same effects?
To be perfectly fair as we’d expect from Zemeckis those effects are not only ground-breaking in how they portray “Mad” and “Hel” but they’ve also dated very well, not something you can say about every film that dotes on these things in a show-off kind of way. And some of his approach to humor, particularly during the first half, is very sharp, making it at times the rare comedy that is actually cinematic—technically, every part of the film is aces. The extended sequence where Rossellini sells the effects of the potion on Streep feels perfect in tone, performance and effects, building up with just the right pace. And even though the trip to a Beverly Hills hospital (actually, “L’Hospital Beverly Hills” as the sign tells us) feels a little scattered in how it’s put together, but it’s still hard not to appreciate how Zemeckis tosses in a split second valet parking joke in there as well as how the hospital curtains seem to intentionally resemble the famous Banana Leaf wallpaper in the Beverly Hills Hotel. That said, around this point is where things begin to go off the rails. Things become more and more frenetic as it goes on, with it finally feeling like the movie is more interested in the big climactic setpiece and chase instead of the characters who have been set up. Much of the story is also set during one of those nights that seem to go on forever which always kind of annoys me. It just feels like somewhere along the way Zemeckis drifted somewhat off-compass because he was focusing so much on the groundbreaking digital effects which would go on to win an Oscar. Some jokes scattered throughout, like the “Sweet Bird of Youth” musical aren’t as sharp as the movie seems to think they are and by the time we get to the celebrity ‘cameos’ of the climax the humor feels on the level of a sketch on an old Bob Hope special. Even the score by the usually reliable Alan Silvestri seems to consist mostly of generic licks which give the impression that he didn’t have any better ideas either. The final moments of the film make all the necessary points and conclude the story about as well as it could but when we get to the final joke it seems like it’s more interested in coming to a screeching halt than actually ending.
One additional point of interest to the film has always been the unusually large number of scenes featured in the trailer that are nowhere to be found in the finished product and with only an older full-frame DVD out there they remain unseen. An awareness of the story gives the idea that some of them were cut most likely for pacing (they might also account for that never-ending night). But the trailer also contains glimpses of things that were excised completely, particularly an entire subplot featuring Tracey Ullman as a bartender who became a sympathetic love interest for Willis and figured into the film’s ending. Her character would have led to what sounds like a gentler version of the denouement that is in the final product, both being set years in the future, one that really may have played better in a less frenetic film. Zemeckis even once said in an interview with Cinefex magazine, “The original ending was soft and didn’t keep with the tone of the picture,” a statement which indicates how much he may have veered away from the points the screenwriters had been trying to make. It could be a case of an approach to a script that is at least slightly misconceived…but considering how expertly some of it is actually put together I’m still not sure. It might be that the film winds up feeling more bitter than genuinely clever as well as the possibility of how misogynist the whole thing may be—heard from an offscreen TV as Bruce Willis is introduced in the present day section is a narrator stating, “The Beaver has always been of interest to man…it is the second largest rodent in the world,” and that may say it all in regards to what the film thinks of women. At the very least, something feels off and, ultimately, unsatisfying about the final product.
Even if the actors play things as big as the director’s approach requires, there’s no denying that each one is willing to completely throw themselves into the material. Streep is fantastic and works off Willis so well it’s interesting to think how he was actually a fairly last-minute substitute for Kevin Kline, who departed when he reportedly couldn’t come to a salary agreement with the producers. Hawn is fun in what isn’t necessarily a stereotypical ‘Goldie Hawn’ role but some of the plot structure means that she doesn’t have quite as much to work with. Isabella Rossellini, looking particularly impressive, is hypnotic to watch every time she appears and Michelle Johnson of BLAME IT ON RIO fame has one well-played scene in which her character drops her French accent without comment from anyone, one of the most nicely subtle jokes in the entire film. As good as everyone might be, the film is easily stolen by the uncredited Sydney Pollack playing the emergency room doctor examining Streep in one of his three screen roles that caught everyone’s attention back in ’92. Even if it is pretty much a ripoff of the equivalent scene in RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (a film which, let’s face it, completely works as black comedy when compared to this), Pollack manages to make it work hugely well and, maybe because he’s isolated from the rest of the film, he’s able to play things more real than anyone else and he gets the most laughs as a result. I particularly like when he refers to Streep and Willis as ‘kids’ in the dialogue, a touch which sounds like it came right from him. If the whole film had been as sharp as these few minutes then maybe all the revolutionary effects wouldn’t have been so necessary.
But that’s the thing. To Robert Zemeckis, these effects are completely necessary and in his ultimate goal to push the boundaries of what’s possible to portray on the screen—which, even I’ll admit, is admirable—he loses sight of whether it’s always necessary in trying to make the best possible film. DEATH BECOMES HER has many points that either work or come very, very close to working extremely well in its portrayal of the darkness that lies under beauty. Bruce Willis’s terrific response to the possibility of immortality that begins with the ultimate question “What if I get bored?” manages to get the point across more succinctly than any episode of STAR TREK on the subject ever did. The best of Robert Zemeckis can be found in this film as well as…well, maybe not the worst but it’s all part of an approach that I’m never going to have any interest in going along with him on. His talent is still there, it’s just interested in pursuing another kind of result right now. I suppose there’s always the chance that he’ll once again develop an interest in the things that made us love his films in the first place, but I’m growing increasingly unsure of that. So it’s safe to say that whether I’m going to have any interest in seeing any more films directed by Robert Zemeckis from this point on simply remains to be seen.