Wednesday, August 17, 2011

To Die For

Originally Written and Posted at on 1/22/08 w/ Additional Edits.

Before the age of the Internet and the overwhelming presence of the paparazzi that helped spawn tabloid TV, the media in the 1990s was just starting to get crazy due to incidents involving the OJ Simpson trial and other strange incidents including the Nancy Kerrigan-Tanya Harding feud prior to the 1994 Winter Olympics. The mid-90s was an era of craziness as media coverage made unknowns into celebrities for 15 minutes. In 1995, a film was made and released just at the time when media coverage of these events were at an all-time high. The film isn't just a satirical view of the media but what one person would do to become famous in the film entitled To Die For.

Based on Joyce Maynard's novel, To Die For tells the story of an ambitious TV weather girl who wants to have fame and a huge TV career who decides to have her husband killed with the help of a few teenagers she profiled for a documentary. With an adapted screenplay by noted humorist and writer Buck Henry and directed by indie auteur Gus Van Sant, the film is made into a style of mockumentary as characters tell the story through interviews and flashbacks as it's all centered around this ambitious woman and her marriage to a simple, Italian restaurant co-owner whose simple ideas get in the way of her desire to be a news reporter. With an all-star cast that includes Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon, Illeana Douglas, Joaquin Phoenix, Allison Folland, Casey Affleck, Dan Hedaya, Kurtwood Smith, Holland Taylor, Wayne Knight, Susan Traylor, Maria Tucci, Mike Rispoli, Tim Hopper, and special appearances from Buck Henry, George Segal, and Canadian auteur David Cronenberg. To Die For is a witty, entertaining, and provocative masterpiece from the duo of Gus Van Sant and Buck Henry.

A woman named Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman) is being interviewed about the murder of her husband Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon) as she talks about her story of meeting Larry years ago at his restaurant that's run by his family. Larry is a simple, young man with simple dreams who comes from a loving, Italian family that included father Joe (Dan Hedaya), mother Angela (Maria Tucci) and his ice-skating sister Janice (Illeana Douglas). Larry catches Suzanne's attention as he tries to win her over including getting a little dog named Walter as Janice recalls her dislike towards Suzanne. Even when Larry and Suzanne wedded, she felt Larry changed from a guy who wore heavy-metal t-shirts to something more conservative. Joe and Angela Maretto are also recalling Larry's marriage in a talk show interview with Suzanne's parents Earl (Kurtwood Smith) and Carol Stone (Holland Taylor along with Suzanne's sister Faye (Susan Traylor).

During Suzanne and Larry's honeymoon in Florida, Suzanne goes to a media convention where she catches the attention of a speaker (George Segal). He gives her advice on how to get attention by telling her story about an unnamed reporter who became famous. Suzanne and Larry return to their home in New Hampshire as she pushes her way to get a job at a local cable channel where she convinces the station's manager Ed Grant (Wayne Knight) to give her a job as she eventually became the weather girl. Though being on TV has given her satisfaction, Suzanne wants more as she decides to make a documentary about teens as she discussed the projects with some students as three of them join the documentary, Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix), Lydia (Allison Folland) and Russell (Casey Affleck).

Immediately, Jimmy and Lydia befriend Suzanne as Jimmy begins to have a crush on her while Lydia feels like she finally has another woman to talk to. Yet with Suzanne's ambitions to become famous, Larry wants to have a family and have Suzanne more involved with the family business since he is set to run his father's restaurant business. Though Suzanne told Larry she'd think about it, but in reality, she decides that he must go. Getting into an affair with Jimmy, the young man is manipulated by Suzanne to have Larry killed. With Lydia providing the gun and Russell going along for the plan, the murder finally happens but evidence and suspicion occurs as Suzanne despite all of her planning let her own ambitions get the best of her.

Mockumentaries are a form of fictional documentaries where characters and such are interviewed in conjunction with the story. The film's story is really about a woman who is willing to become famous by any means necessary. Even if she has to kill her loving husband just to become famous. Told in a style of memories and interviews, screenwriter Buck Henry creates a story that is filled with a lot of dark humor, witty dialogue, and satire as his take on media coverage, tabloid TV, and ambition is truly one of the best script adaptations ever written. Even the characters like Suzanne, Larry, Jimmy, Lydia, and Janice prove to be more than just one-dimensional caricatures. Janice is a sister who like her brother, has simple ambitions while remaining devoted to her family while really being one of the few people who saw Suzanne as a phony. Jimmy may seem like a dumb, stoner character but his own naivete provides an innocence as a young man who finds some self-respect for the first time since Suzanne is one of the rare people to call him James.

Lydia is another character who is filled with character development as this chubby, insecure young woman who finds a friend in Suzanne and like Jimmy, becomes manipulated as she is one of the more real characters in the film as she is also one of the film's main storytellers. Larry at first glance might seem like a typical, Italian-American man with little ambitions but his love for simpler things and family makes him into a well-meaning man. Yet, when he is about to die, one would've expected him to fight back but the shocking behavior of his murder from Jimmy's point of view realized what the two men really are. Yet, the real arc of the film is Suzanne, a woman who doesn't really like to use her husband's last name for professional reasons. Yet, she's a very complex character who uses her sex appeal and charm to get what she wants while at the same time, she isn't a very smart woman when a camera or a media figure is involved.

A lot of the film's humor and satire should go to Buck Henry for his sharp, witty screenplay while helming this story into a kinetic visual style is Gus Van Sant. Van Sant's direction is extremely superb and hypnotic. The use of style and compositions that Van Sant presents gives a film that is enamored with the idea of a mockumentary. Suzanne's interview is shown through her talking behind a white background as she is talking to a camera. There's a few great scenes where Van Sant conveys a mood, particularly in the lighting as it plays to Suzanne's eerie ambitions where things go from light to dark. Even the use where the camera becomes a hole to target Larry's head confirms Suzanne's state of mind. Van Sant's approach to the ending is comical that involves a cameo by revered Canadian director David Cronenberg that is followed by an ironic ending. The overall direction of Van Sant is truly superb as his use of wit and humor creates a film that is entertaining and provocative.

Longtime cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards creates a wonderful, stylish photography with a sheer, bright look to many of the film's daytime exteriors with Ontario, Canada playing New Hampshire with its great shots of the snowy town. Edwards' interior work is wonderful to convey the sense of style and lighting moods as the film has a strange, noir-like feel to convey the mood of Suzanne. Editor Curtiss Clayton brings a wonderful style to the film's editing that has a somewhat, non-linear feel with the use of jump-cuts, slow-motion, and transitions. Even through the jump-cuts, there's moment of what the audience might've thought happened as the film plays through like a puzzle with Clayton's superb editing.

Production designer Missy Stewart and art director Vlasta Svoboda does a wonderful job in creating the suburban home of Larry and Suzanne with wonderful colors in the furniture and appliances while creating the poor homes of the teens she's profiled. Costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor does an amazing job in the look of Suzanne's clothes where it's all in style from the colorful power suits and blouses she wears to her colorful underwear, dresses, and tight pants. The costumes that Kidman wears is extraordinary and fun to watch. Sound editors Kelley Baker and J. Paul Huntsman do excellent work in the sound to convey the suspense and atmosphere in the dramatic scenes of the film.

Music composer Danny Elfman creates a fun, hypnotic score that is reminiscent of the classic scores from the films of Alfred Hitchcock. With a mix of screeching, metal guitars, the score underplay the film's humor while adding a saucy sense of terror of what is to come. Elfman's score is truly superb as the soundtrack features memorable cuts from Eric Carmen, Billy Preston, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Strawpeople, Nailbomb, Donovan, and in the film's promos, Don Henley's Dirty Laundry.

The casting by Deirdre Bowen and Howard Feuer is wonderfully assembled with cameos and small appearances from Rain Phoenix, Buck Henry as high school teacher Mr. Finlayson, George Segal as a conference speaker, the film's novelist Joyce Maynard as Suzanne's lawyer, and David Cronenberg in a great cameo as a man at a lake. Notable small roles from Gerry Quigley as Ed's associate George, Michael Rispoli and Tim Hopper as two detectives investigating Larry's murder while having a funny scene with Joaquin Phoenix in his interrogation as the two actors also appear in scenes as the Maretto's restaurant regulars. Holland Taylor is fine as Suzanne's mother along with Susan Traylor as Suzanne’s sister. Kurtwood Smith has a memorable appearance as Suzanne's father who doesn't approve of Larry at first due to his background. Maria Tucci is great as Angela Maretto who is concerned about Suzanne's lack of desire to become a mother while Dan Hedaya is great as Joe Maretto, the father who helps Larry in the importance of family.

Wayne Knight is wonderfully entertaining as station manager Ed Grant as Knight's straightforward, comedic performance is fun as he plays a foil of sorts for Kidman while calling her character "gangbusters". Illeana Douglas is amazing as Janice Maretto whose quick-witted remarks about Suzanne is filled with a lot of humor while in some ways, plays the film's conscience as she is baffled by Larry's choice in wanting Suzanne as his wife. In his film debut, Casey Affleck is great as the trouble-making Russell who is more than willing to do crazy things while annoying Mr. Finlayson. Allison Folland is extremely superb as Lydia, a young insecure girl who is easily manipulated by Suzanne as she is often given advice about losing weight while for a moment, feels like she's fitting in as Folland's performance is truly memorable, which is also her film debut.

Joaquin Phoenix delivers a breakthrough performance as the dim-witted but sweet Jimmy who falls for Suzanne while finally getting some self-respect and confidence despite his own insecurities. Phoenix's laconic, subtle performance is amazing as the actor proved he can step into the shadows of his late older brother, River while proving to be one of the best actors of his generation. Matt Dillon is amazingly low-key as the charming, street-smart Larry Maretto. Dillon's engaging performance is fun to watch as he plays a man with simple ideas of family and love who is truly unaware of his wife's ambitions as Dillon is great in playing a character who eventually becomes a victim.

The film's best performance truly goes to Nicole Kidman in what is really her breakout role to American audiences. In the role of Suzanne Stone, Kidman brings a lot of layers to the performance as she is mean, conniving, manipulative, and cold whenever she's not getting what she wants or trying to control the situation. Yet, when she is at work or being part of some media event, Kidman adds a lot of energy and humor to the character that is sometimes heighten by the presence of the little dog Walter played by Misha. The whole film is Kidman through and through as it's a wonderful, star-making term for the Australian beauty.

When it was released in 1995, the film drew rave reviews and box office as Nicole Kidman received lots of acclaim including a Golden Globe win for Best Actress in a Comedy/Musical. The film proved to be Kidman's breakout role as she finally stepped out of the shadow of her then-husband Tom Cruise. The film also introduced the public to Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck in which the latter would become one of Van Sant's key collaborators as his older brother Ben and friend Matt Damon would help bring Van Sant his biggest success with their own screenplay entitled Good Will Hunting.

To Die For is an extraordinary, witty, and entertaining masterpiece from Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Buck Henry helmed by a phenomenal performance from Nicole Kidman. Fans of black comedies and satires no doubt will enjoy this film while fans of Kidman will no doubt consider this her most essential performance. While fans of Gus Van Sant will consider this film to be his most accessible in comparison to art-house fares like My Own Private Idaho and Drugstore Cowboy to more experimental films like his recent Death Trilogy. The film is still one of Van Sant's quintessential films. In the end, for a film that is sexy, a great soundtrack, look, and witty commentary on the media, To Die For is the film that lives up to its title.

(C) thevoid99 2011

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