Gus Van Sant's "To Die For" is, quite literally, a movie to die for. With a fine-tuned screenplay by the great Buck Henry, (who appears in a side-splitting cameo as a high school teacher) "To Die For" takes an up close & personal look at a cable t.v. weather girl who will do anything (well, almost anything) to be a network anchorwoman with a household name. Just one thing. She is initially attracted to the good-looking Italian lug played by Matt Dillon. But when Matt becomes her husband, he wants her to help out with the family restaurant & fill her up with little bambinos. What's a future national celebrity to do? That's right, go to the local high school & enlist the three most dazed & confused kids there to rub out Matt. How? Well, one chunky kid (Alison Folland) absolutely idolises her & walks her dog Walter & does anything her heroine asks her to do. And Joaquin Phoenix is so sexually obsessed with her that he lets himself be dragged into murder just to keep her in bed with him.
Only the audience & the wonderfully snide Illeana Douglas as Matt's sister sees through this self-absorbed temptress played to the hilt by Nicole Kidman. The last time they filmed this variation on the Pamela Smart story, adorable Helen Hunt played it straight in the obligatory "fact-based" television movie. But novelist Joyce Maynard, Henry & Van Sant, took the bare bones of the Case & ran with it in a bold effort to shred our tattered visions of the media to a pulp. It won't, of course: This is Kidman's break-through movie, the one that she will always be identified with, even when she is wheeled out for cameo roles in the 21st century. Her fame may eventually supersede the movie that first handed it to her on a platter.
I do worry about Joaquin Phoenix, though. River's kid brother looks so strung out in every single sequence that his presence feels like a cruelly evocative in-joke. Matt Dillon sheds his sexual charisma to play Kidman's worshipful schnook. And newcomer Folland is impressive as the chunky fan who, like the ill-fated Barbara Bates in "All About Eve", fragments into many images of herself, even more than her role model. Slap this movie & the Simpson trial in a time capsule for centuries of the future & wonder what they'll think about our time. Unless, god forbid, the folks of the future far surpass our reality that lust & fame are to die for.
Copyright 1995 Monica Sullivan
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