Wild Things is lurid, sleazy, and funBy Vladimir Zelevinsky
Directed by John McNaughton
Starring Kevin Bacon, Matt Dillon, Neve Campbell, Denise Richards, Bill Murray
I never thought I'd write something like this, but here it goes: Wild Things is a halfway good movie, and it could have been quite a good one if it had more sex, more sleaze, and more lurid outrageousness. Let me explain what I mean.
The plot of Wild Things involves sex, scheming, betrayal, more sex, drugs, more sex, violence, more sex, and more violence; it features copious nudity (both genders); there are at least twelve (according to my rough count) major plot twists; the setting is tawdry South Florida, with skimpy outfits, swampy landscapes, and alligators in what seems like every other shot; and, adding all of the above to the surprising total, it plays like a comedy - I presume intentionally so.
The story is entirely comprised of the aforementioned plot twists, so I will limit myself to describing the hook. After the first (relatively serious) half hour, high school guidance counselor Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon, nicely playing stupid) finds himself accused of rape by two very different students of his: princess-like high-class cheerleader Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards, lately seen fighting computer-generated giant bugs in Starship Troopers) and grungy, tattooed, pot-addicted outcast Suzie Toller (scary-looking Neve Campbell, who is making quite a career in movies where most of the cast gets creatively whacked). Since the Van Ryans seem to have all the power in South Florida, Sam is forced to find himself a cheap independent lawyer. In comes ambulance-chasing Ken Bowden (Bill Murray) and the movie drops any pretenses of being serious.
Murray is clearly having the time of his life playing a character who is (or at least seems to be) the sleaziest of the lot - and that's no small feat. With his appearance, it instantly becomes clear that none of the preceding should be taken even slightly seriously, and the enjoyment comes not from trying to think how realistic the plot is but from trying to outguess the next twist and relishing the outlandish preposterousness of it all. Murray's character completely destroys any pretenses this movie has about being a serious mystery. For me, however, he made the movie actively enjoyable.
Usual mystery narratives concern a bunch of innocent people who are eliminated one by one (eliminated either mentally, by the detective, or physically, by the villain) until the last person remaining is the culprit. Wild Things makes a twist on this modus operandi - the central scam of the movie grows in magnitude until everyone seems to be in on it, and the real fun starts when the perpetrators start eliminating each other.
Unfortunately, around the time this all begins (roughly half-way through the movie), Murray's characters exits the picture, and the attempts to turn Wild Things into a character-driven thriller resume. These attempts are utterly pointless - there's nary a character that matters - and it's impossible to take any of the outrageous twists seriously. If director John McNaughton had realized this, and kept piling on lurid stuff to match the lurid plot then Wild Things would have been quite an entertaining picture. As it is, the pacing becomes sluggish, and the twists are revealed in somber manner, which is a grand mistake. When the plot operates in the "more is more" mode, everything else should follow the suit.
The movie, however, rights itself again - right after it ends. Interspersed between the closing credits are the wickedly funny short segments which gamely attempt to explain the preposterous plot and actually almost succeed in doing so. As perhaps a final reward for the audience, Bill Murray appears in the closing shot and gets a final line, which is hilarious. All in all, Wild Things is a guilty pleasure which could have been more pleasurable if it had been more guilty.