What’s worth dying for? Forget love, honor and Mom’s apple pie if you’re using Hollywood as a barometer. The fall film festivals in Toronto and New York are packed with movies about deluded media junkies willing to die and even kill for a few bucks or a blow job. So much for power, wealth and passion. Fame is reduced to doing the weather on a 10-watt cable channel.
At least it is for leggy and lethal Suzanne Stone Maretto, the newlywed careerist played by Nicole Kidman in To Die For. Suzanne is stuck in the sticks of Little Hope, N.H., with husband Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon). Larry, a bartender in his mob-connected father’s restaurant, wants a family. Suzanne, a junior-college graduate in electronic journalism, wants out. If she divorced Larry, she would lose the condo, the car and the cash for the figure-hugging, brightly colored fashions she wears as the local cable-TV weather girl. Better to just have her 16-year-old lover, Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix), kill Larry.
It sounds awful — like a tawdry rehash of the Pamela Smart case that spawned a tabloid frenzy and several TV movies. But To Die For, sparked by a volcanically sexy and richly comic performance by Kidman that deserves to make her an Oscar favorite, is prime social satire and outrageous fun. Director Gus Van Sant sets up the media as a poison piñata, and screen-writer Buck Henry, adapting the 1992 novel by Joyce Maynard, whacks at the target with the sharp edge of his wit, spilling the contents for observation and rude laughs.
The film begins, aptly enough, with Suzanne facing a camera, telling her story in flashback. Although her boyfriend has fingered her for putting him up to murder, she is poised, with every hair in place. Her gods are Jane Pauley, “who I strongly relate to because of our similar physical types, although I, thankfully, don’t have to struggle with a weight problem like she does”; and plastic surgery — hint, hint for “Mr. Gorbachev, the man who ran Russia for so long, who would still be in power today if he had that big purple thing taken off his forehead.”
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Kidman is uncanny at catching the speech patterns, prejudices and killing ambition of this TV baby who believes nothing is worth doing if nobody’s watching. Larry, played by Dillon with endearing naiveté, never stood a chance. His ice-skater sister, Janice (a wonderfully caustic Illeana Douglas), who knows cold when she sees it, warns him off Suzanne. But Larry is besotted, even when Suzanne picks Florida for a honeymoon spot so she can go off to a media conference when he’s out fishing. Larry doesn’t know his wife also sneaked a quickie with a famous TV exec (George Segal), who tells her that a famous female broadcaster got started through a letter of reference that she really wrote herself about how “Miss So-and-So is of moderate intelligence and, more importantly, can suck your cock till your eyes pop out.”
Suzanne prepares such a letter when she visits Ed Grant (Wayne Knight), the fat local-station manager whom she manages to cajole into making her a weather girl. Suzanne is soon lit up with dreams of Los Angeles stardust that don’t include Larry. Her ideal couple is “Entertainment Tonight‘s John Tesh and his lovely actress wife, Connie Sellecca, who are able to spend their evenings at home sharing their mutual expertise in lighting, makeup, camera angles and so forth. That to me is what relationships are about.”
Suzanne is a demonically hilarious creation, and Kidman, looking like an erotic ice cream sundae in her pastel suits, teddies and fuck-me pumps (the deliciously droll work of costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor), is pure temptation. At the Little Hope high school, Jimmy and his loser friends, Russell (Casey Affleck) and Lydia (Alison Folland), are dumbstruck just watching Suzanne sashay to class to recruit volunteers for her “Teens Speak Out” report. Kidman struts her stuff — bidda-bim-bidda-boom — with enough come-on carnality to singe the screen. There is much crotch grabbing among the boys, although Jimmy senses something else, something “clean.” Says Lydia: “I thought Suzanne was like a goddess of some kind — like Lady Di before she dumped the prince and went nudist.”
Pop-culture references rebound to expose barren lives. Van Sant, along with cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards and editor Curtiss Clayton — both superb collaborators with the director on Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho and the misguided Even Cowgirls Get the Blues — structure the film around interviews with Suzanne and the people she uses. The film often turns to comment on itself in deference to Suzanne’s demented dictum that “you aren’t anybody in America if you’re not on TV.”
The national obsession with turning lawbreakers into celebrities is a hopelessly moldy theme. Van Sant revitalizes it by showing compassion for the three teens seduced by the distorted mirrors that Suzanne holds up to them. The overweight Lydia will aid Suzanne in a murder for a dim promise of friendship and a job as her assistant. Horny Russell will do it for a few CDs and a chance to look up her skirt. Folland and Affleck skillfully capture the pang of adolescence among no-hopers. Joaquin Phoenix, River’s brother, cuts deeper. Jimmy is a trailer-park punk with nothing, then there’s this bombshell going down on him in motels, taking her mouth off him to ask when he’s going to kill her husband and not putting her mouth back on him until he names the date. Jimmy’s raging hormones supply the answer. Phoenix is shattering in the scene when a scared Jimmy shoots Larry at home as Suzanne, on TV, wishes her husband a happy first anniversary. Jimmy tells the police he calmed his nerves by thinking about lying around some topless beach with Suzanne and working on her TV show. Larry’s fate is sealed when Suzanne tells Lydia, “Larry is a nice guy, but he doesn’t know a thing about television.”
At the end of To Die For, Suzanne gets hers, but she also gets the last close-up — an eerily beautiful freeze frame that lingers in the memory long after the image dissolves into dots. Although Van Sant makes wicked sport of television, he doesn’t underestimate its power to blind us to its faults and bring us to our knees.