MOST satires of mass-media entertainment, like ''Network'' and ''The Player,'' aim their humor at large-scale institutions with lots of money and clout. In real life, though, much of the media's noise can be traced to more marginal sources, from the drone of radio news stations to the low-budget oddities found on local cable shows.
''To Die For,'' directed by Gus Van Sant from a mischievous screenplay by Buck Henry, sets its sights on the most modest brand of media madness. The heroine is Suzanne, an aspiring TV personality who enters the job market armed with a junior-college degree and enough blind ambition to motivate an army of would-be stars.
Knowing that her inevitable success may be preceded by a tiny bit of time at the bottom of the ladder, she lands her first job at a New Hampshire cable station that needs a weatherperson for its evening newscast. Between her smiley-faced pronouncements about sun, clouds, and rain, she works on projects meant as springboards to higher things - which much amuses her boss, who respects her gumption but recognizes her limitations far better than she does.
Her career goes nowhere, and since the fault couldn't possibly lie in her own shortcomings, she starts looking for someone to blame. The likeliest prospect is her new husband, an easygoing guy whose laid-back manner is the opposite of her high-energy approach to life, love, and work. Already dissatisfied with him as a mate, Suzanne has used her latest news project - interviews with high-schoolers about their bored, aimless lives - to launch an extramarital affair with a boy who's even dimmer and duller than she is. Why not cajole him into eliminating her irksome spouse, whereupon her career will surely rocket to the lofty orbit for which it's destined?
Where the humor comes in
Many of the funniest scenes in ''To Die For'' depict Suzanne's professional life, contrasting her optimistic dreams with the workaday reality of a low-glamour job on a no-glamour channel that cares less about setting the world on fire than just staying in business for the immediate future.
The movie ranges far beyond media satire, though, reserving its most cutting sarcasm for the middle-class milieu in which Suzanne and her family live. They're ordinary folks with ordinary homes, jobs, and problems, and they sincerely see themselves as decent citizens from head to toe.
What they don't perceive are the signs of greed, sexism, ethnic prejudice, and other ills that run subtly through the fabric of their lives - reaching a harrowing high point in Suzanne's murderous plot and the daunting deceptions that spring from it.
The filmmakers perceive these ills most clearly indeed, and explore them with blasts of withering humor. Nothing is spared, from the WASPish attitudes of the older generation to the lunkheaded foolishness of the high school crowd.
Van Sant's previous pictures
As in other Van Sant movies, such as ''Drugstore Cowboy'' and ''My Own Private Idaho,'' the world of middle-class normality turns out to be less ''normal'' than it would like to believe, fostering urges and behaviors that are promptly wished away as too unpleasant or unsettling to contemplate. In such surroundings anything can happen.
This said, the sardonically titled ''To Die For'' is less biting in its views than Van Sant's previous pictures, which went further in probing the breadth and depth of contemporary American experience.
Making a commercial comedy like this is certainly a good career move for Van Sant, after the commercial and critical disaster of his recent ''Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,'' but fans of his usually subversive cinematics should know he's on his best (i.e. most conventional) behavior this time around.
In keeping with this strategy, he puts less weight on visual style than on story and dialogue - which are charged with the darkly comic mood Henry has been cultivating since ''The Graduate'' almost 30 years ago. (Some critics have drawn comparisons with the Pamela Smart murder case of 1990.)
Nicole Kidman gives her most effective screen performance to date as Suzanne, making her irresistible and infuriating at the same time. Matt Dillon continues his long Van Sant collaboration with a smartly self-effacing portrayal of the ill-fated husband, and Illeana Douglas couldn't be better as his ever-suspicious sister. Special mention also goes to Joaquin Phoenix, who is poignantly good as the boyfriend with an itchy trigger finger.
The supporting cast was skillfully chosen, and Eric Alan Edwards's cinematography does an extraordinary job of bringing out the dangerous side of pastels - exactly the sort of touch Van Sant plans and executes with exquisite care, giving even his most lightweight movies an extra measure of sly significance.
* ''To Die For'' is rated R. It contains sex, violence, and vulgar language.