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To die for


When Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman) sees the paparazzi's flashbulbs, she feels a wave of exhilaration -- even at the funeral of her husband, and even though she happened to help put him in his grave. Details, details: nasty as they are, they can't shake Suzanne's faith in her own tirelessly cultivated celebrity. At last she has won the media attention she regards as life's sweetest reward.

Because Suzanne believes in the redeeming power of television, she has made herself its candy-colored creature, turning her job as a weather girl into the apotheosis of empty fame. Her whole life revolves around that idea of glamour. When she serves dinner, it's famous food ("This is the dish they serve in Johnny Carson's favorite restaurant in Hollywood") and she's star enough to avoid actual cooking. When she gets married, it's in a veil copied from Maria Shriver's. And even when she's in private, she remains a coyly decorative public person. "What's the point in doing something good if nobody's watching?" Suzanne wants to know.

There are times when we get exactly the satire we deserve, and this is one of them. "To Die For," an irresistible black comedy and a wicked delight, takes aim at tabloid ethics and hits a solid bull's-eye, with Ms. Kidman's teasingly beautiful Suzanne as the most alluring of media-mad monsters. The target is broad, but Gus Van Sant's film is too expertly sharp and funny for that to matter; instead, it shows off this director's slyness better than any of his work since "Drugstore Cowboy." Devilish wit sets "To Die For" worlds apart from the unwatchable fiasco that was his last effort, "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues."

Both Mr. Van Sant and Ms. Kidman have reinvented themselves miraculously for this occasion, which brings out the best in all concerned. Based on a novel by Joyce Maynard (which unofficially embellishes the case of Pamela Smart, the 23-year-old New Hampshire schoolteacher tried in 1991 for conspiring with four teen-age students to kill her husband), its story has been tightened deftly by Buck Henry's screenplay. Using Ms. Maynard's narrative idea of having many different characters comment on Suzanne's life, the movie becomes a quick, punchy string of sound bites, many of them sending up our tabloid culture's love of the ready cliche. Says Suzanne's husband, the hapless Larry Maretto: "I'm telling you, she's it. She's the golden girl of my dreams."

Ms. Kidman's smoothly hilarious performance and Barbie-doll perfection make it clear what he means. But not everyone who knows Larry shares his infatuation. Take his sister Janice, played with terrific, snappish zest by Illeana Douglas, who often appears on ice skates. When Suzanne sulks because Janice may land the Peggy Lipton role in a skating tribute to "The Mod Squad," it's clear that their rivalry is much too serious to go away.

To be fair, Janice and the Marettos are right to worry about Suzanne. She is seen bursting into their lives, snagging Larry, marrying him and then becoming too career-obsessed to care about being much of a wife. (She doesn't want children, she says, because it would be difficult to cover a royal wedding while pregnant.) Meanwhile, Mr. Dillon does a sneakily fine job of aging from young stud to bewildered couch potato ("He went from Van Halen to Jerry Vale overnight"). He's a man who can't understand why his wife doesn't share his interest in plastic plants.

What would have once been the Matt Dillon role in "To Die For" is actually played by Joaquin Phoenix, the sloe-eyed younger brother of River Phoenix, who is cast as this film's bewildered teen-age hunk. When Suzanne arrives to make a documentary in his high school classroom, looking sensational and sounding gloriously insincere about her interest in schoolboy thinking, Mr. Phoenix's Jimmy Emmett and his friends Lydia and Russell (Alison Folland and Casey Affleck) are agog. Beatrix Aruna Pasztor's show-stopping costumes (the most amusing movie clothes this side of "Clueless") make great fun out of the contrast between the kids, so drab and grungy, and Suzanne, who's dressed to kill.

Sure enough, when Larry suggests that Suzanne give up her weather reports, the idea of killing comes to mind. Killing Larry, that is. So Suzanne sets out to seduce Jimmy and his friends with all the come-hither professionalism -- quite a lot -- that she has brought to reporting the weather and clawing her way up the career ladder. When the evil deed is committed, Suzanne tries to keep a safe distance, but she is present at the crime scene in just the right fashion.

"To Die For" does not have to ask how a young man and woman from perfectly nice families (Dan Hedaya and Maria Tucci make properly dismayed parents for Larry) could come to this. It already knows, and we should too. The film doesn't have to hammer home its thought that a tabloid-based culture rewards virtue and notoriety equally well, and that it is possible in this climate to be a killer and even come out ahead, at least in terms of fame and fortune. Happily, the film has other plans for Suzanne, skewering her with her own ethnic prejudices in the process.

Suzanne would not see those ideas of hers as small-minded. She thinks of herself as eminently sensible, as when she suggests that "Mr. Gorbachev -- you know, the man who ran Russia for so long?" would have fared better politically with makeup covering the birthmark on his forehead. Not even when it turns murderous does Suzanne lose her certitude in that kind of pragmatism.

So pity poor Jimmy. Rivetingly played by Mr. Phoenix with a raw, anguished expressiveness that makes him an actor to watch for, Jimmy is both tempted and terrified by Suzanne's slick amorality. In that, he speaks for us all.

"To Die For" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It includes sexual situations, strong language and brief, deadly violence.
Date Added: 04/28/2013 by Nicola DeDavid
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