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Movie Review

'Wild Things' Runs Rampant With Twists and Surprises

March 20, 1998|JACK MATHEWS | FOR THE TIMES

Two sexually precocious high school seniors are washing a Jeep in a residential driveway in suburban Florida, and indulging in a little water fight while they're at it. The water does what water does, makes the girls' skimpy clothing cling to their bodies, and clinging does what clinging does--drives men crazy.

But what men? The Jeep's owner, a teacher that one of the girls has a crush on, is in the house. There's no one there to watch the show they're putting on, so who is it for? It must be . . . us!

Yes, the victims of John McNaughton's offbeat noir thriller "Wild Things" are the members of the audience.

That's not necessarily bad. "Wild Things" wants you to be in on its tricks; it just doesn't want you to get ahead of them. As if you could. The movie has more twists than Chubby Checker, and as soon as you think Stephen Peters' script has used up every conceivable opportunity, it twists again.

"Wild Things" begins simply enough. In some small, coastal Florida community, popular high school teacher Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon) is accused by one of his students, one of those car washers, of rape. It doesn't seem likely to us, after watching her soak up and walk into his house. But when a classmate tells police that she, too, was raped by Sam, the community's in an uproar, led by the first girl's tawdry mother (Theresa Russell), a wealthy widow who was briefly Sam's lover.

At his trial, the second accuser, a tattooed, pierced bit of trailer trash named Suzie Toller (Neve Campbell), is tricked by Sam's ambulance-chasing lawyer (a hilarious Bill Murray) into admitting that the whole thing had been dreamed up by the other accuser, Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards), and Sam is soon receiving an $8.5-million settlement for a libel suit brought against Kelly's mother.

Kevin Bacon's embarrassed cop Pat Duquette isn't buying any of it. He's convinced that Sam and the girls hatched the whole thing, and as he sets out to prove his theory, fear turns to murder turns to betrayal turns to double-cross and it just keeps turning.

Before "Wild Things" ends, with a series of flashbacks that explain all the motives and events that got us there, there are as many surprises as characters.

Like "The Usual Suspects," "Wild Things" is clever for clever's sake. Peters and McNaughton, who's come a long way since the hyper-realistic "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," are content to obfuscate and mystify for the satisfaction of fooling us. On its own terms, it works; that is, each ending is well thought-out and vaguely logical. But it doesn't add up to much.

There's been some hype over the film's R rating, as in, how'd they get away with that? There's a menage a trois scene with Dillon, Campbell and an impressively nude Richards, with some passionate girl-girl kissing, and given Campbell's apple pie image in "Scream," that may come as a shock.

But the real push against the ratings envelope comes from Bacon, who has what may be the most gratuitous male frontal nude scene in a major studio movie, proving that when you're the executive producer, size does matter.

* MPAA rating: R for strong sexuality, nudity, language and some violence. Times guidelines: strong menage a trois scene and totally gratuitous male frontal nudity.

'Wild Things'

Kevin Bacon: Ray Duquette

Matt Dillon: Sam Lombardo

Neve Campbell: Suzie Toller

Theresa Russell: Sandra Van Ryan

Denise Richards: Kelly Van Ryan

Daphne Rubin-Vega: Gloria Perez

Carrie Snodgress: Ruby

Bill Murray: Ken Bowden

A Mandalay Entertainment production, released by Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Entertainment. Executive producer Kevin Bacon. Directed by John McNaughton. Producers Steven A. Jones, Rodney M. Liber. Written by Stephen Peters. Cinematography, Jeffrey L. Kimball. Production design, Edward T. McAvoy. Music George S. Clinton. Production design Edward T. McAvoy. Art direction Bill Hiney. Set decoration Bill Cimino. Costumes Kimberly A. Tillman. Editor Elena Maganini. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.

*

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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