'A Kiss Before Dying'
Starring Matt Dillon and Sean Young.
Directed by James Dearden.
Released by Universal.
** 1/2 "A Kiss Before Dying" isn't so much told, like a story, as it is plotted, like a graph. It derives from Ira Levin's first (and best) novel, written in the early '50s when the then 23-year-old author was waiting to go into the Army. The book lacks depth, insight, irony and meaning, which makes it perfect for the '90s. On top of that, it is deviously clever, strictly a bonus in today's film culture.
This story has been filmed before, in 1956 with that era's Matt Dillon, Robert Wagner, in the lead. Now this era's Matt Dillon, Matt Dillon, has a go at the key part, an ambitious but shallow student whose desire is to take over a copper magnate's empire and whose method is to marry one of his daughters. But he keeps messing up, so he keeps having to kill them instead, on the theory that practice makes perfect.
The daughters are both played by Sean Young, in slightly different hair, and that's the extent of her characterization. James Dearden's screenplay also streamlines and updates the plot, turning the last intended victim into the heroine where Levin's pre-feminist tale had relied on a male hero (Jeff Hunter, in the movie) to sort things out.
More importantly, the movie plays well off of stereotypes of '90s acquisitiveness, Dearden having wisely abandoned Levin's concept of a combat veteran who'd learned his trade in the Pacific and chosen one from Brett Easton Ellis instead. Dillon, not an actor with much range, has the right degree of vacancy in the depths of his flashing dark eyes, and he looks great in those floppy silk suits that one man in a generation can wear (he's it in his).
As for Young, young she's not, at least not young enough to play a 22-year-old, and she seems a little mismatched with Dillon, who fits the stretch of years better. She's not even very good. But "A Kiss Before Dying" doesn't require performances so much as appearances, which she has in spades. The characters must look good and stay out of the way of the story, which hurtles along with accelerating creepiness.
Dearden is something of a specialist in the bruises, sutures and body bags left by relationships gone sour. He wrote "Fatal Attraction," and he directs like a writer: The movie is very static and Dearden is at pains to keep his camera, as well as the performances and performers, out of way of the twists of the piece. This is probably a good thing; still, it's interesting to contemplate what a showier johnny like "Fatal's" Adrian Lynne might have done with the materials.
As for the twists, the more I say about them, the worse off you'll be. It's neat, nasty work, unmemorable but guiltily enjoyable.