"To Die For" isn't afraid of the dark. A smart black comedy that skewers America's fatal fascination with television and celebrity, it employs an unerring nasty touch to parody our omnipresent culture of fame. And it uses a rather unlikely combination of talents to do the job.
Star Nicole Kidman, director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Buck Henry have difficulty fitting into the same sentence, let alone the same film about a creature of the media whose mad passion for the limelight is as addictive as a drug. But, brought together by producer Laura Ziskin, they create the kind of unexpected synergy that Time Warner-Turner might copy.
Though he had an acting role in Van Sant's bloated "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues," screenwriter Buck Henry, whose credits date to "The Graduate," does not mimic the director's sensibility. His dialogue is clever and witty, he's at ease with parody and he knows how to skillfully adapt a novel, in this case pumping up the humor in Joyce Maynard's devilish book, which in turn was suggested by a real-life New England scandal of a few years back.
Working with a tight, classically structured script is definitely a departure for Van Sant, known for loopy, eccentric films like "My Own Private Idaho." But the director was unexpectedly charged by the experience, adding his trademark absurdist sensibility to the mix as well as an empathy for inarticulate, inchoate teen-agers that turns out to give this film a good deal of its impact.
Placing Nicole Kidman (who tends to be identified with films like "Days of Thunder" and "Far and Away," which she co-starred in with husband, Tom Cruise) in this company may seem like a stretch, but the opposite turns out to be true. Known as a more adventurous actress in her earlier career in Australia, Kidman's perfectly pitched comic performance, as fearless as it is poisonous, ends up being the kind of nervy knockout the film couldn't succeed without.
Using a dead-on American accent, Kidman plays Suzanne Maretto, formerly Suzanne Stone, who, "To Die For" immediately reveals, has brought an unlooked-for note of scandal to the town of Little Hope, N.H. Her husband, Larry, has been murdered, and America's tabloids, both print and TV, can't get enough of the possibility that Mrs. Maretto had a very particular hand in his death.
Suzanne is introduced doing what she loves best, talking to a camera and telling her version of the events leading up to what she demurely lowers her eyes and calls "my recent tragedy." But, she admits, brightening immediately, the situation is not without benefits for someone who believes, as Suzanne absolutely does, "You're not anybody in America if you're not on TV. What's the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody's watching?"
Not necessarily agreeing are Suzanne's friends and relatives, whose on-camera reminiscences are intercut with conventional flashbacks and talk show appearances in "To Die For's" always involving structure. Through these multiple viewpoints we get a picture of a cold steel magnolia whose happy face passion for television celebrity flabbergasts everyone who comes into contact with her, a woman you say no to completely at your own risk.
Most taken with Suzanne, or "Sooze" as he calls her, is her husband, Larry (convincingly played by Matt Dillon), the kind of regular guy who is surprised to realize that artificial plants in the family Italian restaurant will eliminate the need for water. Though his suspicious sister Janice (a breakthrough role for Illeana Douglas) is dubious, Larry sees Suzanne as the kind of delicate golden girl he wants to take care of forever.
Seeing a more relentless side of Suzanne is Ed Grant (Wayne Knight), the station manager at WWEN, the local no-watt cable access channel that advertised for a gofer and ended up with a zealous self-described "on-air correspondent." Inevitably giving in to Suzanne's tireless pestering, he lets her do the weather, which she treats with the gravity of the Normandy invasion, and then tentatively OKs a documentary on local high school kids called Teens Speak Out.
The teens in question, scuzzy pals Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix), Lydia (Alison Folland) and Russell (Casey Affleck), are wistful losers who, as Ed Grant rightly comments, "would have a major struggle reciting the days of the week." But Suzanne, bless her, takes them seriously as career advancement fodder. Then, when husband Larry foolishly takes a stab at derailing her career plans, she realizes they might be useful in other ways as well.
The most accurate assault against the media age since "Network," "To Die For's" killer lines and wicked sensibility are given added poignancy by the off-center, sensitive performance of Joaquin Phoenix, River's younger brother, the only person more deluded about Suzanne than she is about herself. Told with a panache that extends from the opening credits to its closing frames, "To Die For" plays its themes for everything they're worth, and, regrettably, they seem to be worth more every day.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong sexual content, and for language. Times guidelines: Brief scenes of lovemaking.
'To Die For'
Nicole Kidman: Suzanne Stone
Matt Dillon: Larry Maretto
Joaquin Phoenix: Jimmy Emmett
Casey Affleck: Russell Hines
Illeana Douglas: Janice Maretto
Alison Folland: Lydia Mertz
A Laura Ziskin production in association with Rank Film Distributors, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Gus Van Sant. Producer Laura Ziskin. Executive producers Jonathan Taplin, Joseph M. Caracciolo. Screenplay Buck Henry, based on the book by Joyce Maynard. Cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards. Editor Curtiss Clayton. Costumes Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. Music Danny Elfman. Production design Missy Stewart. Art director Vlasta Svoboda. Set decorator Carol A. Lavoie. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
* In limited release throughout Southern California.