Last year, underground icon John Waters satirized similar targets with a hoot called Serial Mom, in which pert and perky suburban housewife Kathleen Turner turned herself into a media star by slaughtering half the neighborhood with weapons ranging from a station wagon to a leg of lamb. Further back, Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet, both mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-anymore, exposed the boobs who run the tube in Network. And let's not forget Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers.
But Van Sant's black humor is not as buoyant as that of his predecessors. The centerpiece of his new movie is a conniving airhead named Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman) who pushes her way onto a local cable channel in a burg called Little Hope, New Hampshire, then turns her life into a bad movie of the week when a dull husband (Matt Dillon) gets in the way of her misguided ambition.
Screenwriter Buck Henry (who gave us The Graduate about a hundred years ago) and Van Sant retell the tale in the familiar mock-TV-news style--by sticking a camera in front of a resentful sister-in-law (Illeana Douglas), two of the three alienated high school kids (Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck, Alison Folland) Suzanne entraps to knock off the old man, and Suzanne herself. There's also the obligatory TV talk show--yes, all the world's a talk show these days--in which the parents of the killer and the victim hash out their differences before an anonymous public.
Chayefsky, Waters and Oliver Stone have done it all before--with more wit. Kidman can be fun to watch as the dingy but dangerous Suzanne, who's named her dog Walter (for Cronkite) and doesn't give a second thought to seducing a TV producer in the middle of her own honeymoon. But there's nothing original in the way she merchandises the murder she's just committed, or in Van Sant's hip sneers at ethnic hotheads or media frenzy. Has it just dawned on him that TV is shallow? Or that people with identity crises turn to "celebrities"? Maybe so. But then, this is the same guy who gave us Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.