Then My Own Private Idaho used clean familiar stars - Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix - and put them in settings that were neither familiar nor particularly clean. With Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Van Sant seemed to lose his bearings, filming a cult novel but not quite knowing whether to produce a crowd-pleaser or not. Now you turn around and he's made To Die For, a slick and entertaining comedy-noir starring Nicole Kidman. And you think: "If all he wanted to be was slick and entertaining, why take such a long way round to get there?"
To Die For starts with two classy elements: Danny Elfman's music, jaunty and sinister, quirkily orchestrated to keep us hoping for sparks of originality, and the title sequence, commissioned from someone else (Pablo Ferro), the way Hitchcock used to hire Saul Bass. The sequence shows newsprint becoming meaningless with magnification, dissolving into indecipherable blobs and then, with the cameras moving back again, turning into Kidman's face.
But, then, To Die For turns out to be one of those films that you can see on television fairly regularly, the films that lambast television values. Films that deplore television are like those research projects into the hazards of artificial sweeteners that used to be funded by the sugar companies. Suzanne (Kidman's role) gets all she knows from the dreaded tube - though, strangely, we hardly see her watching it. Her idea of public life is out of Dynasty (royal weddings, revolutions in South America). Her remedy for everything is plastic surgery, and she dreams of interviewing Gorbachev to find out if he regrets not having that un-telegenic birthmark put to rights. She dislikes foul language, but only partly because it offends her, and mainly because the networks don't let it be broadcast.
For a while, it looks as if there will be a sympathetic side to this character. When she first comes across real television people (she has slyly arranged her honeymoon to coincide with a media conference), she is genuinely shocked by their assumption that she is just female meat. Nicole Kidman manages to find a space inside the caricature for this gorgeous idiot to feel something that isn't vacuous. Then, when Suzanne sets out to make a documentary (Teens Speak Out) about some local high-school kids who may even be dumber than her, it looks as if her lack of snobbishness will somehow redeem her. She doesn't have brains enough to be snobbish.
Even experienced screen-writers like Buck Henry (who adapted Joyce Maynard's novel) can't always resist giving stupid characters clever lines, and so Suzanne, when her husband talks about wanting children, snaps: "If you wanted a baby-sitter you should have married Mary Poppins." But even though it turns out she has a plan, she's still the worst kind of stupid - scheming stupid.
There's a sort of inevitability about the I-hate-TV movie. You just know that once it's established that Television Is Shallow, a glamorous woman is going to get it in the neck (remember poor Faye Dunaway in Network). Van Sant associates Suzanne with a clip from Bell, Book and Candle, the film in which Kim Novak plays a witch, and ends the film with Donovan singing "Season of the Witch" on the sound-track. Gay directors should take particular care when they take on projects with a misogynistic component.
Where the film partly redeems itself is in the portrayal of the no-hope teenagers, Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lydia (Alison Folland). Here Van Sant is dealing with inexperienced players and getting something fresh from them - yes, Joaquin is the brother of that Phoenix, but he's only made a few film appearances, and Folland is making her debut. With his treatment of Phoenix's character, the director is also returning to the subject of his first film Mala Noche: the sexiness of the poor and desperate.
Van Sant's camera loves Jimmy's awkwardness and inarticulacy, but also his dancing and his eyelashes. It's a shock to realise that a confection like Suzanne can share the screen with someone who seems so pitifully real. There is also a revealing camera movement, in a scene where Suzanne is giving Jimmy a powerful sexual inducement to murder. The camera moves from his face, down towards where she is busy, but stops halfway. It looks like shorthand - that's as much as we can show you, folks - until you realise that the camera finds Phoenix's tensed midriff rewarding in its own right.
All this would just seem like a voyeurism pay-off for the director if Lydia received a less specific attention. Luckily, Alison Folland is as fully present as Joaquin Phoenix, and the scene where she talks to Suzanne in an offhand way about being sexually abused by her stepfather ("I got this mild case of TB and he wasn't so interested after that") is one of the few moments when To Die For looks as if it might actually be about something: about the unsensational ubiquitous miseries that TV doesn't have time for.
For most of the time, though, To Die For seems stranded between two sorts of film, falling short of either the idiosyncrasy of the independent or the full-bloodedness of the blockbuster star vehicle. Even the supporting cast, good though it is, is similarly stranded, full of familiar faces that you can't quite place. Suzanne's boss at the local TV station, wasn't he in Basic Instinct? Jurassic Park? Both? Her sister-in-law, didn't Robert De Niro do something terrible to her in, what was it, Cape Fear? And what are you supposed to do if you realise that you know her father-in-law (played by Dan Hedaya) from the days when he played Carla's ex-husband in Cheers? Leave the cinema in disgrace? Kill yourself for being a shallow person who watches TV?
n On release from tomorrow