In To Die For, Gus Van Sant’s black satirical riff on fame, television, and tabloid fever, Nicole Kidman wears as many outfits as Barbie — and, indeed, most of them make her look like Barbie. Her clingy minidresses are the color of Easter eggs, and, with matching heels and lipstick and a cascade of reddish-blond hair, she’s a plastic American dream date. Kidman’s Suzanne Stone is a small-town girl whose only desire in life is to be a celebrated TV personality. Everything about her — her looks, her very being — is a pure product of television. Vacuous yet avid, she’s as ”clean” as a toothpaste commercial, with enough grinning optimism to rival a squad of cheerleaders. The joke of the movie is that beneath her shiny manufactured surface (she’s always on), her mind is working at full manipulative throttle. Sex, lies, murder: She’ll do it all — anything to get to the top.
Strangely enough, almost nothing we actually see Suzanne do has much connection to her ambition. She marries a sweet, rather lunkheaded restaurant manager (Matt Dillon, effortlessly convincing). She lands a gig as a cable-TV weather-person and then gets weirdly obssessed with making a documentary about three scruffy local teenagers. Finally, in a variation on the Pamela Smart scandal, she seduces one of the teens and gets him to kill her husband.
Suzanne Stone isn’t a fleshed-out human being, and she isn’t meant to be. She has been conceived, rather, as a camp icon of celebrity psychosis. Kidman plays her deftly, with the airbrushed chirpiness of someone like Leeza Gibbons. Working from a script by Buck Henry, Van Sant stages scenes with a whip-smart flair that feels like a return to form after the failed whimsy of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. To Die For skips along on his craftsmanship, and on the sparkly energy of Nicole Kidman. At times, you can practically read her dirty thoughts.
After a while, though, Van Sant simply seems to be getting off on the arbitrary viciousness of Suzanne’s ”witchy” behavior. Why does she want to murder her husband anyway — just to get out of the marriage? (It’s never clear what inspired this ruthless climber to hitch herself to Dillon’s small-time stud in the first place.) To Die For is the kind of fashionably ”outrageous” comedy that invites you to giggle with pleasure at being hip enough to like it. The movie’s most memorable performance is also its most incongruous: As Jimmy, the teen sap who falls hard for Suzanne, Joaquin Phoenix (the younger brother of River) is dead-eyed yet touchingly vulnerable — a mush-mouthed angel. Van Sant, the poet of gritty young lust, treats Jimmy’s anguish with utter earnestness. But what is this kid doing in the same bedroom, or even the same movie, with Kidman’s cartoon monster? Van Sant should have done the Pamela Smart story straight or gone all the way into stone-cold satire. Instead, he gets you to revel in chic heartlessness — and then asks for your heart back. B-