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To Die For
area theaters

The Scarlet Letter
area theaters, starts Friday

THE REAL SHAME of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues isn't so much that it was a flawed movie, but that its once-great director, Gus Van Sant, has clearly taken its critical and commercial failure to heart. As his first film with a major studio, To Die For seems incomprehensible as the work of the same man who made such intensely personal, beautifully grimy epics as Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho. Here, Van Sant weds a hateful film noir tale (loosely based on the story of Pamela Smart, the New Hampshire schoolteacher who goaded her teen-age lover into killing her husband) to a kitschy '70s color scheme befitting John Waters, purporting to critique our culture's obsession with media celebrity. Sadly, the movie reeks of mainstream sellout on the one hand, and barely cloaked misogyny on the other.

Parodying the likes of "Hard Copy," To Die For tells its tabloid narrative through a series of on-camera confessions. Early on, one character claims that Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman), a vapid small-town reporter with aspirations of being the next Barbara Walters, can be described in "a four-letter word that starts with 'C'" (that's "cold," as it turns out). Van Sant doesn't appear to disagree. Since Suzanne proves stupid enough to think that Gorbachev would still be in power if he'd only had that "big purple spot" taken off his forehead, her ability to rise in her profession owes entirely to her sexual prowess, which the movie observes with a mix of awe and phobia. When her family-man husband (Matt Dillon) suggests she give up her career in order to raise kids, Suzanne contrives to get a stoned teenager named Jimmy (hilariously played by Joaquin Phoenix, River's brother) to murder him. How does she do this? She gives the kid fellatio interruptus until he finally pledges to get a gun.

In the wake of the O.J. verdict, To Die For does offer the timely point that becoming a killer can be an effective way of promoting one's negligible career. But the target of the film isn't so much the media per se as women in the media. While there's an undeniable kick to the notion that a shiny-happy newsreader (Colleen Needles, say) might be a raving sociopath off-camera, the film is undone by its hostile tone: To Die For pokes fun at the banality of Suzanne's ambition, then denigrates her further by allowing her no real power or success. Giving Van Sant the benefit of considerable doubt, he might be trying to say that underclass kids are the most impressionable victims of media indoctrination. But are female newscasters the real villains of the TV industry? Are they the ones who benefit most from our culture of idiocy? In that the sole nuances in Suzanne's character require Kidman to act ditzy, horny, manipulative, and bitchy, a Best Actress nomination would be the film's ugliest irony.

Demi Moore fares better in The Scarlet Letter, if only for the fact that, as one of the few Hollywood actresses able to green-light the movie of her choice, she means it to lend her a hint of feminist cred in between Disclosure and the forthcoming Striptease. Moore's ability to fulfill such a calculated career move does indicate some measure of distaff power, especially in contrast to her role as Hester Prynne, the 17th-century heroine whose slightest assertions of control are met with the hateful scorn of Puritan settlers. Nevertheless, even the most well-intentioned movie star can only be as righteous as her vehicle, and this laughable adaptation has about as much to do with gender politics or classic literature as an invoice for $12 million (Moore's current fee).

The Scarlet Letter's unintended humor comes as early as the opening credits, which claim that the movie is "freely adapted" from the book. That's for sure. As you may have heard, the director (Roland Joffé) and star have seen fit to grant Nathaniel Hawthorne's Victorian-era tragedy an upbeat ending, with Moore's martyred Hester literally tossing her symbol of shame out a carriage bound for the happily-ever-after. In fact, this is a minor offense compared to the insulting manner in which Hester's punishment for the crime of unwed pregnancy makes her sulky and passive rather than tough or pissed. If this were a term paper, the operative letter would be an F.

Joffé's depiction of the sinful rendezvous between Hester and the Reverend Dimsdale (Gary Oldman) rivals the pottery-wheel tryst in Moore's Ghost as the most ludicrous sex scene in movie history: While the doomed lovers spend an eternity unbuttoning each other's clothing (those impenetrable corsets carried plenty of symbolic heft), Joffé inserts "exotic" images of Hester's black servant girl masturbating in front of a red bird (this has to be seen to be believed). Thus, the movie replicates the slave politics of the period--a reprehensible approach even though the white actors are shackled to convention as well.

Method-acting from under a rug-like hair piece, Robert Duvall does invest his role as Hester's evil hubby with appropriate menace ("Behold the devil's own child!" he screams at one point), but it's hard not to feel embarrassed for Oldman, playing a grunge-band Dimsdale whose intelligence is limited to his gifts as a speed-reader. Indeed, if this inept preacher-man weren't stuck in such oppressive times, he might have had a future as an author of Cliffs Notes.

 
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