Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Blond Ambition

Nicole Kidman is something an enigma: a once sparkling actress now somewhat hampered by celebrity and Botox, and perhaps more frustratingly, a woman with great taste in scripts but horrible self-awareness for when she's not suited for a role. When cast right, her icy otherness can work wonders (see: Birth, The Others). When put in the wrong role, her alien presence can kill a film with distraction (see: playing a wilting Southern belle despite looking like a runway model in Cold Mountain or worse, cast as the last beacon of real-woman humanity in The Invasion and the abominable Stepford Wives remake).

But like most movie stars, Kidman got to her current salary and script power by starting off as a genuinely good performer who had the elusive 'it' factor. Made in 1994, Gus Van Sant's satiric meta black comedy To Die For was Kidman's big break, and rightfully so. While the movie has some issues (we'll get there), it's hard to deny that Kidman's skill at inhabiting a small-town fame-hungry sociopath ever makes you think of her as, at the time, Tom Cruise's Amazonian wife.

Quick Plot: Filmed as a combination of talking head interviews and straight drama, To Die For opens on the highly publicized funeral of Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon) and the ensuing murder investigation targeting his weather girl wife, Suzanne. We then track back to see their courtship--he a proud bartender set to inherit his parents' successful Italian restaurant, she a prissy junior college graduate with her sights on being the next Diane Sawyer. Mixed into their mismatched love story is Illeanna Douglas expressing eternal doubt as Larry's figure skating sister Janice.

After talking her way into TV weather spots at a local station, Suzanne becomes focused on a video documentary project with high school students, primarily the delinquent Russell, lovelorn Jimmy (a young and earnest Joaquin Phoenix), and insecure Liddy. Afterschool editing gives way to extracurricular parties and all-too-easy seduction, as Suzanne then enlists the smitten Jimmy to eliminate Larry now that he's pushing babies while her career is (at least to her eyes) taking off.

Inspired by a real-life tabloid popular murder case from the early '90s, To Die For feels as if it was once quite cutting edge and now reads as missing the boat. If the 21st century's celebrities are disposable faces that last a day on TMZ and Perez Hilton, then we have to remember that the print media and dial-up connection days of the '90s required more recognizable stars on the cover of The National Enquirer to lure in shoppers at the checkout line. Fresh off the O.J. Simpson Trial of the Century, Suzanne Maretto would have indeed been something of a tabloid star. But in 2012, there's just nothing fresh-feeling about her story. Worse is the fact that by now, there's (sadly) hardly anything shocking about a desperate wannabe TV star offing her husband. Maybe it's the boxful of Lifetime Originals that have been churned out in the 18 years since To Die For's premiere, but the scandal just never comes off with the wickedness it once had.

This isn't to say To Die For isn't enjoyable. Kidman is wonderfully watchable, inhabiting every bit of Suzanne's stone cold ambition. She's aided quite a bit by the very look of the film, one that dresses her in candy Clueless colors and blunt haircuts, never letting her beauty feel anything other than artificial and extremely constructed. Buck Henry's script offers quite a few chuckles and plenty of quirky-yet-believable supporting characters. It's almost no one's fault that To Die For has lost its edge. Time does that. 

Unless we're talking about facial angles. Those things can get quite sharp.

High Notes

This is Kidman's film to lose and she holds on with every cold sparkle in her blue eyes, but credit should also go to the always welcome Illeanna Douglas for infusing every bit of her dialogue with winkable sarcasm

also, ice skating
Low Notes
I'm not sure if the fault lies in Van Sant's cold approach to the material or the simple fact that the concept of celebrity has changed so specifically, but I just found it impossible to actually care about anything that happened onscreen. Kidman is superb and the bevy of great character actors (Kurtwood Smith, Dan Hedaya, and HOLY CRAP David Cronenberg among them) are more than serviceable, but at the end of the day, To Die For did pretty much nothing for me

Lessons learned

It’s not good to tan when you’re on TV

Never trust a woman who programs All By Myself to be played at her husband's funeral, mostly because you'll then be stuck singing it all week

As a character in a film, always be wary when a serene David Cronenberg is cast as your costar. Unless he's quietly eating strawberry ice cream, he generally means you ill will


To Die For is perfectly fine, but I felt rather empty when all was said and done. I don't know that Van Sant made any Big Statements we didn't already know about the hunger for fame, and in today's era of Honey Boo-Boos and Jersey Shores, the film just feels as if it chose the wrong path. It's less that the film is out of date to today's zeitgeist than that it simply feels too obvious today. Regardless, it's still mildly amusing in humor, slightly disturbing in content, and almost sad in showcasing the somewhat lost potential of a certain Australian star.


  1. When I first saw this in the Wayback I had a roommate who not only bore a strong resemblance to Kidman but also, personality-wise, this wannabe nutjob character. I think my reaction to the movie is tied up in how well the real/unreal meshed for that instant in time... but you have me wondering if I'd have enjoyed it as much if I'd been living with someone sane when I watched it.

  2. Ha! Living with a Suzanne would be SCARY!

    I don't know. A lot of people still hold this one in high regard. It's not bad by any means, but I just found nothing surprising or daring about it. Maybe that's just a sad commentary on 2013 society and culture...

  3. One of my favorite movies.Back then Nicole Kidman had so much promise. It's a shame what she had turned into.

  4. Right? She physically can't act as well because SHE PHYSICALLY CAN'T MOVE HER FACE!

  5. I originally saw this on Cinemax not too long after its original release. I was about 13, in bible club and very, very sheltered. This movie had a profound impact on me- in my little world it was so DARK, everyone was mean and Joaquin Phoenix made me feel funny.

    Now I'm 29. I saw it on TV recently and yeah... you were a but ripped off seeing it these days. The bite is gone, although Kidman and Alison Folland's performances still hold up IMO. That said, I recently watched PROMISED LAND via a screener and man... at least Van Sant used to take chances. He's so comfy now, maybe an updated look at celebrity in a dark comedy way would be good for him.

    I love this blog. I adore your taste in horror but sidetrip reviews like this put you above and beyond. Happy 2013!

  6. Thanks so much for the kind words Stephanie!

    Van Sant is an odd duck. He did the on/off indie/mainstream juggle for a while (balancing a studio pic like Finding Forrester with his more experimental Elephant-like stuff), so maybe that's what Promised Land is. I can never decide where I land on him as a filmmaker. I admire his flair for the experimental but I don't know that I've ever seen anything that I love. At least he keeps trying I guess!

  7. I'm old enough to remember this coming out...and to be even more blunt, I remember when Nicole Kidman was Nicole Kidman. Pre-surgical disasters aside, I've always had respect for her. She'll always be Sam Neil's traumatized wife on the houseboat in Dead Calm for me.

    It sounds like I missed my window of opportunity in watching this though. If it's dated and lukewarm interesting I probably don't have time for it.

  8. I still respect Kidman, especially since she usually picks such interesting projects (Birth was a risk, and hey, I'm sure The Stepford Wives looked good on paper). I'm just sad that her face is what it is now, and even sadder that she ends up in roles she shouldn't (how can you cast a woman whose face doesn't move as the last human left standing in The Invasion?).

    I'd be curious for your thoughts on To Die For. It's still entertaining, if only for Kidman's performance and Illeana Douglas' attitude. But yes, it feels a tad dated.

  9. I'll have to watch this. I saw parts of it a long time ago, but my memory of it is fuzzy.

    I like Nicole Kidman a lot. With so many actors trying to be PC, she's willing to take chances with her roles. She's a smart actress. I'll have to see The Paperboy when it comes to DVD. The reviews have been mixed, but there is consensus that Kidman was really good. It's unfortunate that she went overboard with the Botox and facelifts. Her face is frozen! It makes me sad.

    The Van Sant talk is reminding me that I still need to watch My Private Idaho. Beautiful River Phoenix, tragic River Phoenix.

    It does seem that Van Sant is coasting these days. One of the few mainstream directors that seems to stick out their neck is Nicolas Winding Refn. I enjoyed Drive and the teaser for Only God Forgives looks good.

    Happy New Year, Emily, and all my fellow readers!

  10. Exactly! Kidman makes genuinely interesting and daring choices when it comes to choosing roles, but her silly Botox has rendered her sometimes impossible of performing them!

    And if it makes you feel any better, I also haven't seen My Own Private Idaho. If you're looking to catch more Refn, I highly recommend Valhalla Rising. Trippy stuff.

    Happy 2013 to you too Burgundy!