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To Die For

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: To Die For

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Joaquin Phoenix
Director: Gus Van Sant
Rated: R
RunTime: 103 Minutes
Release Date: September 1995
Genres: Comedy, Drama

*Also starring: Matt Dillon, Casey Affleck, Illeana Douglas, Alison Folland, Dan Hedaya, Wayne Knight, Kurtwood Smith, Maria Tucci, Buck Henry

Reviewer Roundup
1.  Steve Rhodes review follows movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review
2.  Andrew Hicks read the review movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review

Review by Steve Rhodes
2½ stars out of 4

TO DIE FOR is the movie that finally proves that Nicole Kidman can act. She does the best rendition of an airhead that I can remember. No, she doesn't just act natural. In this movie, loosely based on the outlines of a true story, she clearly works hard at her craft. Although it sometimes get a bit tedious and monotonous, her performance never gets contrived or corny.

The movie opens with scenes of a murdered husband, Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon), in his living room floor and his wife, Suzanne Stone Maretto (Nicole Kidman), being accused of the crime. Many scenes follow of both sets of parents being interviewed on an Oprah style television talk show. We then flash back to happier times when Larry and Suzanne are meeting each other and getting married.

Suzanne Stone is an aspiring young TV personality. What kind of personality is not important to her, only fame is. As she puts it, "You aren't really anybody in America if you're not on TV." Although she starts as a gofer in a cable TV station in a small town, her aspirations are as big as America. She obsesses with being the next Connie Chung or Jane Pauley both of whom she thinks she is superior to. Jane, she whispers to the audience, has "a tiny weight problem you know." By sheer force of will, Suzanne becomes the "weather girl" on this cable TV channel whose entire staff only numbers three.

There are many natural moments in TO DIE FOR like when Larry is bowling with his sister Janice (Illeana Douglas) and looks over at Suzanne in an adjoining lane and declares that he is going to marry her. The cinematography (Eric Alan) of about a third of the movie is a documentary style of talking heads and with a handheld camera full of numerous pans and zooms. In a continuing series, we have an excellent performance by Janice in her ice-skates talking about Larry and about how much she hated Suzanne. This is not hard to fathom since when Suzanne first meets Larry's sister she tells Janice how much happier Janice will be if she gets some plastic surgery to make her skin perfect. Suzanne then goes on to point out how Gorbachev would probably still be in power if had had plastic surgery on his birthmark.

In an autobiographical monologue that runs through the whole show, Suzanne pontificates about life. She is always upbeat and smiling, and she explains that "It's nice to live in a country where life, liberty, and other stuff, stand for something." This is from a woman who gets away with the murder of her spouse in cold blood. Coming so close to the conclusion of the farcical Simpson circus, some viewers may find this part tragic rather than comical.

The script by Buck Henry and Gus Van Sant Jr. and based on the novel by Joyce Maynard is filled with scenes so hilarious that I had almost uncontrollable laughter. That is the good news. The bad is that there are wastelands of dead time between the laughs. The problem with the non-funny parts is that the writers have not created characters that you care about so that no matter how great Kidman's acting is and no matter how hard you laughed ten minutes ago, you don't care if the characters get used, abused, or shot. Dillon, for example, doesn't have much of a part, and he certainly does nothing memorable with it.

The heart of the story is the murder and how Suzanne seduces three teenagers to kill her husband. The lead teenager, Russell (Casey Affleck) is a cliche of a kid with an demonstrable IQ about the same number as his age. In an attempt to become famous, Suzanne makes a movie of these three losers from the local high school. The cable station manager, Ed Grant (Wayne Knight), tells the cops "She must have shot hundreds of hours with these three dory kids who had a major problem reciting the days of the week."

As a director, I find Gus Van Sant Jr.'s style too eclectic for my taste. This is not surprising since his last film was that major bomb, EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES. Nevertheless, I do like TO DIE FOR. Finally, I want to give a special mention to the costume designers (Else Curtis and Beatrix Aruna Paszter) and the make up artists. They do a wonderful job of making Suzanne into an extremely made up woman in very brief miniskirts and yet they never go over the line and overdo it. The pushed her look to the absolute limit, but never made her look sleazy.

TO DIE FOR runs 1:40, and I think the editors (Jeffrey Arsenault and Curtiss Clayton) should have left a few more entire scenes on the cutting room floor so that the meantime to laugher was much smaller. The movie is rated R for sex, understated violence, some profanity, and about one second of nudity from a far distance. It is a soft R, and I would see no problem in teenagers seeing the show. There were certainly many in the audience where I was. I give TO DIE FOR a thumbs up for Kidman's performance, for interesting docudrama style cinematography, and for some huge laughs, and I award it ** 1/2.

Copyright 1995 Steve Rhodes

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