I’ll say this first: Wild Things has the best courtroom scene in recent memory. Matt Dillon’s upstanding high school guidance counselor has been accused of rape by a student of questionable moral standing. The trial builds to a head as a witness cracks under cross examination, and someone in the peanut gallery starts screaming and throwing things. In a cultural miasma populated by Monica Lewinsky, Jerry Springer, and Court TV, the superbly timed invocation of the ultimate 90s epithet (“You skanky bitch!”) is pure pop effervescence.
That high point comes, oh, 20 or 30 minutes into Wild Things, and no matter how hard they try, director John McNaughton and screenwriters Stephen Peters and Kem Nunn just can’t quite keep it up. Once you get the feeling for the game Wild Things is playing — everybody’s double-crossing everybody else, and nothing is really what it seems — it loses the capacity to exhilarate, if not to surprise. Granted, there’s an eye-popping bit of business involving Neve Campbell and a topless Denise Richards in liplock, but it’s most surprising because the heretofore wholesome Campbell is playing resolutely against type, not because it crosses any lines that haven’t been crossed already on late night cable TV (or, for that matter, by Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon in 1996’s Bound). Now, if Matt Dillon and Kevin Bacon had wound up in a torrid sex scene, that might have been groundbreaking.
No such luck, although half the girls in attendance on opening night squealed with what sounded like a mixture of delight and embarrassment when Bacon’s penis made a gratuitous cameo appearance. Face it — the shock value of Wild Things says more about the innate conservatism of Hollywood than it does about Wild Things itself. The movie even goes out of its way to describe its naughty high schoolers as 18-year-olds, lest its sex scenes run afoul of our new child pornography law. (In case you were curious, both Campbell and Dillon stay clad.)
Early scenes are a sour parody of softcore erotica, with bare young flesh to spare. The story grows darker as it progresses, with Bacon playing an investigator who smells deceit in the air as events turn murderous. Unfortunately, the ground Wild Things covers is pretty well-trod, and if you bother to think about it, you’ll probably stay a few steps ahead of all the characters.
Richards, impossibly toothsome in the barbed Starship Troopers, is cast here as a cunning sexpot. She’s still a little too Playmate-of-the-Monthy to play a straight role, but she’s a crowd-pleaser who stands to do well in resolutely self-conscious films like these. The only slightly dishevelled Campbell shows some new stuff as a girl from the other side of the tracks, but can’t quite shake her ingrained TV star quality, even with phony tattoos up the wazoo. Keep an eye on her — who knows where she’ll go from here? Kevin Bacon, meanwhile, gets the blandest part in the flick, a dully interchangable nobody. (You’d think that, as executive producer, he could have done something about that.) Only the ever-reliable Matt Dillon goes above and beyond to extract a credible human character from the labyrinthine screenplay. In little more than a cameo, Bill Murray does well as the kind of attorney who has “As Seen on TV” stenciled on the outside wall of his shopping-center offices.
Far be it from me to say it’s no fun to watch a movie that so doggedly avoids any hint of redeeming value. Wild Things is one clever picture, and if you think you’ll enjoy it, you probably will. McNaughton, whose reputation is still based on the strength of the singularly unpleasant Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, re-envisions film noir in the sunny, sexy context of upper-class suburbia (with snapping Florida gators mixed in for atmosphere), and the world he creates is good-looking and consistently engaging. Much of the credit for that has to fall on the shoulders of the cast, which is appealing across the board. Ultimately, though, Wild Things is too careful in its excess to be a success. For all the cartoony grudge matches and contrived turnabouts, there’s no edge here, and all of the passions are fake. That may be a good way to find an audience these days, but it’s a bad way to make a noir.