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.
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|
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
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.