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TO DIE FOR (director: Gus Van Sant; screenwriters: Buck Henry/from the book by Joyce Maynard; cinematographer: Eric Alan Edwards; editor: Curtiss Clayton; music: Danny Elfman; cast: Nicole Kidman (Suzanne Stone Maretto), Matt Dillon (Larry Maretto), Joaquin Phoenix (Jimmy Emmett), Casey Affleck (Russel Hines), Alison Folland (Lydia Mertz), Illeana Douglas (Janice Maretto), Wayne Knight (Ed Grant), Dan Hedaya (Joe Maretto), Maria Tucci (Angela Maretto), Kurtwood Smith (Earl Stone), Holland Taylor (Carol Stone), Buck Henry (Mr. H. Finlaysson), George Segal (TV executive); Runtime: 106; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Laura Ziskin; Columbia Pictures; 1995)
“A grotesque black comedy.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Gus Van Sant (“My Own Private Idaho”/”Finding Forrester”/”Elephant”) shapes a grotesque black comedy, using a faux-documentary style of shooting, as he takes easy pot shots at America’s pop culture scene and its fascination with tabloid stories, celebrity and television. The film’s heroine, Nicole Kidman, emphatically states “You’re nobody in America unless you’re on TV.” It’s uncompromisingly written by Buck Henry (plays a small role as a high school teacher) and adapted from Joyce Maynard’s novel, which was inspired by the 1991 murder case, televised on court TV, where the 23-year-old New Hampshire school teacher, Pamela Smart, was convicted of conspiring with four teen-aged students to kill her husband.

Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman), with a degree in electronic journalism from a junior college, is an ambitious, heartless, not too bright and attractive resident of Little Hope, New Hampshire, dressed to the hilt in smart pastel colored outfits, who aspires to be famous at any cost. She lands a bottom-level job on the local cable station as a gal Friday, and talks the good-natured station manager (Wayne Knight) into letting her do the evening weather report. She marries Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon), who after high school works in his father’s family Italian restaurant. Larry holds his obsessed, vain and self-absorbed wife up on a pedestal and can’t say no to her on anything. His cynical sister Janice (Illeana Douglas), who joined the Ice Capades, sees through Suzanne and shows open contempt for her. Larry’s parents would have preferred if he married a more homebody Italian girl, but just throw up their hands and say “this is America.”

When married for a year and not pregnant, Larry tells his wife he wants to raise a family. Suzanne views this as a threat to her career, and while working on a TV station documentary, called Teens Speak Out, recruits three disadvantaged, inarticulate and misfit high school student to bump off her hubby. The weather girl befriends the overweight Lydia (Alison Folland) and promises to take her to California when her career opportunities widen, gets the lovestruck Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix) to become her lover and be the one who fires the gun that kills her husband and promises the malcontent Russell (Casey Affleck) $1,000 and CDs to help Jimmy kill her Larry.

Canadian director David Cronenberg has a cameo as a hit man; George Segal has a neat cameo as a smutty TV executive at a Florida convention; while the novelist Joyce Maynard has a cameo as Kidman’s lawyer. Dan Hedaya has a nice turn playing Dillon’s father, who just might have mob connections. But the show is stolen by Kidman, who does a Tuesday Weld type of performance as good as that actress has ever done.

The dangers of TV are aptly pointed out in both irreverent comical and serious ways, making this one hell of a subversive commentary on how TV creates monsters. Though when the premeditated murder is plotted and carried out, the comedy loses its zing and the focus against TV becomes lost sight of as everything revolves around the despicable Kidman character.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”