FILM / The dead zone

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BOGGLING EYES are a bad sign on a film poster, and the advertisement for Death Becomes Her (PG) shows three sets - the shocked orbs of Goldie Hawn, Bruce Willis and Meryl Streep. There hasn't been so much eye-white on a poster for a good long time.

Robert Zemeckis, the director, is best known for the Back to the Future films and for Who Framed Roger Rabbit. He is supremely skilled at grafting state-of-the-art special effects on robust narrative - or vice versa - but this is his first real attempt at black comedy.

From the script of Death Becomes Her, you might deduce that the authors, Martin Donovan and David Koepp, had been watching Brazil - with its sub-plot of two ageing women competing to stay young-looking with bizarre techniques (acid and surgery both have their advocates in the film) - and Beetlejuice, with its funny and poetic account of social problems among the dead. You might think they'd been reading Greek mythology about the drawbacks of immortality - the Tithonus legend, for instance - and then fallen asleep in front of a television that was showing Old Acquaintance, a Cukor film about life-long rivalry between women. The writers have their own account of how they came upon their inspiration: 'We always wondered how Night of the Living Dead would have turned out if Noel Coward had written it.' Always is a long time. It's a shame they weren't able to make their pitch to the Master himself, or we might have been treated to a horror film in which parvenu zombies flaunted their Sulka dressing-gowns and mixed bad cocktails.

Such a project would have had at least as much dynamism to it as Death Becomes Her. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit Zemeckis successfully mixed animation and actors, but here - using living performers exclusively - he delivers only a cartoon. Cartoon is a labour-intensive medium, but it has an in-built advantage that can redeem it from laboriousness: in animation, it's as easy to break physical law as to obey it (perhaps easier). Cartoon returns us to an infantile state where there's no distinction between thought and reality. But when a film like Death Becomes Her doggedly shows us the impossible, we become too self-conscious. We know that this is a regressive pleasure. We look down, as we don't when we watch Tom and Jerry, and we notice we are wearing nappies.

The violations of the body that make up such a large part of Death Becomes Her produce only the vaguest frisson. The question 'How did they do that?', which never arises in cartoon, treads on the heels of the boggling moment - the moment, say, when someone with a large hole in her middle inadvertently sits down on a sofa with a pole sticking out of it, so that she slips on to it cool as a Polo mint on a skewer. The hyper-real is only a breath away from the hyper-unreal.

Meryl Streep as Madeline (or 'Mad' - the very names are nudges) continues her recent excursion into comedy. It's as if she's trying, so far in vain, to find something she can't do, so as to arrive at - if only by elimination - a role that will pull out from her something more than skill. She's gutsy in Death Becomes Her where the script requires it, but gutsy in a vacuum. They're vacuum-packed guts. Goldie Hawn as Helen ('Hel') remains for the most part trapped in the prison of her perkiness. In one scene her character has become grossly overweight and demented, and Hawn seizes her chance. The Goldie persona is all slim hips and kookiness, and for a few moments, thanks to reverse liposuction - lipoblotation? - she is free of it. It's like a late screen test for the Kathy Bates role in Misery.

Bruce Willis has the least grateful part, as the dowdy man the women fight over. Take away from this actor what he does best - the smug wisecracks, the sweaty singlet - and you leave nothing. This isn't like casting against type, it's like decapitation. The performer who makes the greatest impression in Death Becomes Her is only an actor some of the time, and isn't credited: Sydney Pollack, who does an outstanding turn as a doctor in casualty examining someone who should by right be dead. It's an unusual achievement, to have directed Meryl Streep (in Out of Africa) and now to be stealing a scene from her. But the theft is justified. Someone has to give this Frankenstein monster of a movie a jolt of juice, to get it moving if only for a few moments.

At the opposite end of every possible scale from Death Becomes Her is Electric Moon (15), small-budgeted, understated and very human. Arundhati Roy wrote the script and designed the production: Pradip Krishen directed and edited. Their partnership goes back almost a decade (though on that occasion, for a film called Massey Sahib, Krishen was the writer while Roy acted) and could well turn out to be one of the most fruitful cinematic double acts since Powell and Pressburger.

In Electric Moon an Indian royal family, two brothers and a sister, market their heritage, an imaginary untamed Nature, to Western tourists. The only big carnivores for miles are the alligator logos on the polo shirts so suavely worn by Ranveer (Roshan Seth) but the tourists expect tigers, and tigers they will get. So what if the striped tail they see waving over a killed buffalo, before the lights strategically fail, is being cranked painstakingly by hand?

Then a new director is appointed to the adjoining wildlife park and things start to get tough. The interactions of the three groups - aristocrats, bureaucrats and stingy Western plutocrats - are outstandingly well rendered. Thwarted by the strict conditions under which the director says he will from now on 'issue permit', Ranveer has at least the satisfaction of barking, 'issue you a permit, indefinite article'. His elder siblings Bubbles (Gerson da Cunha) and Socks (Leela Naidu) are like twins, or even lovers, and adjust less smoothly than Ranveer to the profit motive and the sacrifices it demands.

The Western visitors are all pretty venal in their different ways, both sexes expecting servility and value, the women hoping for romance with a maharaja thrown in. The discomfort for Western viewers is somewhat alleviated by the realisation that the tone of the story, in its shifting balance of pathos and comedy, is solidly Chekhovian.

In the last scene, Roy and Krishen extend their range into some discreet surrealism. Bubbles reluctantly boards a jumbo jet on his way to Copenhagen, where there is to be a Festival of India. The plane's interior is crammed with subcontinental stereotypes, human, animal and divine. Electric Moon can't hold a candle to Death Becomes Her in terms of slickness, but the 16 make-up artists on Zemeckis' unwieldy film achieve nothing as subtly striking as the contrast between the green face-tone of a divinity, travelling in economy, and the green of the can of Seven-Up from which he is so impassively refreshing himself.

(Photograph omitted)