To Die For

on September 29, 1995 by Christine James
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   In a plotline reminiscent of the scandalous real-life story a few years back about a teacher who seduced a teenaged student and persuaded him to kill her husband, "To Die For" plays on the tabloid theme indigenous to such headline-grabbers and subtly parodies a media that turns criminals into celebrities. Based on a novel by Joyce Maynard, the film is well-written, with a dark sense of humor played straight, and is brought to life by Nicole Kidman, who is captivating in her brilliantly dead-on portrayal of Suzanne, a woman who personifies malevolent perkiness. Her one dream is to be a TV journalist, covering events like "a royal wedding, or a revolution," as she naively puts it. Suzanne is psychotically ambitious; everything in her life revolves around her goal, because "you aren't really anybody in America if you're not on TV. Because what's the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody's watching?" This sociopathic Kathie Lee Gifford (or is that a redundancy?) serves the same dinner she knows is Johnny Carson's favorite, she has her wedding veil designed exactly like Maria Shriver's, and she names her beloved Pomeranian after Walter Cronkite. She extemporaneously relates innumerable half-facts and fragmented tidbits from which she draws witless conclusions, but she does so with such confidence and conviction no one questions her.
   But, when her good-hearted husband Larry (Matt Dillon) tries to interfere with Suzanne's aspiration, her obsession turns to murder. The script does fail to explain why Suzanne married Larry in the first place; being solely interested in herself, one would think she would wed someone wealthy or in a position to further her career. Not even a cliche insurance policy is mentioned to justify her motivations only a car, a condo, and custody of the dog. But that is forgiven due to many excellent performances and Gus Van Sant's delightfully ironic means of exposition talk-show interviews with family, friends and accomplices to the crime, each telling their side of the twisted tragedy.    Starring Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon, Joaquin Phoenix and Illeana Douglas. Directed by Gus Van Sant. Written by Buck Henry. Produced by Laura Ziskin. A Columbia Release. Satire. Rated R for strong sexual content, and for language. Running time: 106 min.
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