A big effects thriller and that turns into a flat joke - that's how I typify this flick. Goldie Hawn is Helen, a premature frump who wasted her life in the shadow of the more glamorous Madeline (Streep). A painfully untalented and hated actress, Madeline managed to get by on her good looks with the help of a lifetime of plastic surgery - but even that is nearing its end by the start of "Death". Though cozily enconsed in a tony Beverly Hills mansion, Mad's looks and her career are history. Bruce Willis is Ernest, the plastic surgeon they seem to be fighting over without actually loving him. When given the chance to experience immortality, the two still find themselves fighting over Ernest and everything else that's gone wrong with their lives. "Death" introduces us to this unfortunate trio during the disco era - when an already aging Madeleine stars in a reviled "Studio-54" version of "Sweet Bird of Youth", and Ernst is both a highly sought plastic surgeon and Helen's fiancée. Though Eernest loves the mild-mannered Helen, it's clear that he's falling under Madeleine's spell, and will be one more of the many men Helen lost to her friend. The plot jumps ahead decades later - Helen is a bloated version of herself, having never gotten past losing Ernst to Madeleine. Madeleine hasn't weathered the years any better - unable to handle losing her youth, she's become a crone who embittered her own life and Ernst's. Ernst by then is shriveled version of his younger self - a self-deprecating alcoholic who's long since learned of Madeleine's dark side (in his home-office, he tosses scalpels like darts at pictures of his hated wife, and refers to her as "it") but can no longer escape. No longer trusted to work on the living, he's become a designer mortician (the dead can't sue for malpractice). And then there's Lisle (Isabella Rosellini) - a reclusive silent-film era star who may have discovered the secret of eternal life...maybe.
What starts off as a bundle of preachy ideas (potshots at a culture obsessed with looks and youth) quickly turns into a string of special-effects fueled sight-gags. Helen and Madeleine use Lisle's secret formula to remake themselves, but find that not even the youth it offers can survive their mutual hate, and the two poke CGI holes in each other. Both learn the hard way that Lisle's formula gives both life and youth, but not in equal portions (i.e. - you can live forever, but your new youth remains as fragile as the one you lost in your 30's). It's supposed to be ironic that in fighting each other, both "Mad" & "Hel" lose what they really wanted - to be "girls" again. Unfortunately it doesn't really work because Lisle's formula never really offers them that - neither wanted immortality, it's that fragile youth they wanted to keep, not their lives. It's a forced irony that doesn't work, and the plot wastes without something meatier to chew on than Mad & Hel's catfighting. While Streep & Hawn try to get some gags out of the script, the flick really belongs to Willis, proving again he can do just about anything. The story also gets some good action in the seductive form of Rosellini as Lisle - "keep your ass handy" she tells her buff entourage. If only they kept her handy as well, but her loss hits this movie once she disappears.