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To Die For (1995)

In Little Hope, New Hampshire, and yet from the eternity of TV fame, too, Suzanne Stone turns to us—direct to camera—the freshest sundae, all pinks, creams, blondes, and custards, and goes into the lovely ad lib confession on what she did to her husband, when any idiot can see that why she did it was, quite simply, to be a sundae show on TV, to be not just the weather center in Little Hope, but the Whether Center in America (the question being whether Suzanne is just guilty or delicious—her show is called Your Guilty Pleasures, in which on reality TV you get to go through with the deepest, darkest longings you've ever had).

Well, no, the glorious To Die For doesn't quite reach that far. It stays in Little Hope with those grungy kids when its own great vaulting esprit indicates the chance that Suzanne could GO ALL THE WAY—she could be Up Close & Personal, she could be a Katie Couric, so wide-eyed and pretty that she can take in all of America in what amounts to the first TV blow job.

It's a brilliant try, taken from a dark, witty novel (based on a real case) by Joyce Maynard and very well scripted by Buck Henry, even if it falls short of some final manic, cartoon surge where one murder makes Suzanne a killer hit. It needs the zest of Network, that satirical energy, and the understanding that Suzanne Stone really is modern America—pretty, sweet, shallow, and a killer-diller.

It may be that Gus Van Sant was not quite the director for that kind of satire. He seems as interested in Joaquin Phoenix as he is in Nicole Kidman, and that's understandable at the New Hampshire level, because Phoenix is outstanding and very accurately observed. But Nicole—in claiming her own identity and naughty-flirty presence on our screen—was reaching for the stars, not just the George Segal figure, but the Robert Redford stiff from Up Close & Personal and a kind of Clintonian president who sees her and sighs, "Santa Monica!"

So the parents are cameo treasures, but the film lingers with them too long. And really Matt Dillon needs to be disposed of more quickly. Suzanne is the Bad Seed grown up, and Nicole is like a candy rocket willing to soar over the mediascape, shedding light and her panties wherever she goes. A masterpiece was in prospect—instead we have a very nice, tart, daring comedy and the sublime insight that so long as Suzanne is confiding in us, direct to camera, mouth to mouth, she can get away with anything.

So this was Nicole Kidman's real debut, yet look how far the business held back from putting her in more outrageous comedies, let alone pictures in which she rose like bubbles in champagne to the level of mass murder. Here is a unique sensibility, seductive and devouring, and all too often Ms. Kidman would be fobbed off with earnestness or cuteness. Terrific support from Illeana Douglas, Maria Tucci, Casey Affleck, Alison Folland, Dan Hedaya, and David Cronenberg.

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