"Wild Things"

John McNaughton's naughty thriller makes your heart sing and your hormones hum.

By Charles Taylor

Published September 20, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"Wild Things"
Directed by John McNaughton
Starring Matt Dillon, Neve Campbell, Denise Richards, Kevin Bacon, Bill Murray, Robert Wagner, Theresa Russell
Columbia Tri-Star; widescreen (2.35:1) and full-frame
Extras: Theatrical trailer, director's commentary, deleted scenes

There's sleazy, and then there's sleazy and smart. Skirting the edge of camp and embracing the humid raunch of the most deliciously clever porn, "Wild Things" is a naughty, wily thriller. Director John McNaughton never makes the mistake of thinking that there's any dark, dirty truth in this hothouse pulp, and the terrifically clever script by Stephen Peters supplies twists and turns that don't make nonsense of the story. Everything in it has been calculated to satisfy your most lurid fantasies; it makes you laugh out loud even as it turns you on.

"Wild Things" is the type of movie where Matt Dillon reaches beneath the Catholic-schoolgirl skirt of rich-bitch high school hottie Denise Richards and we see her white-cotton panties drop down onto her squeaky clean ankle socks and Mary Janes.

It's also the type of movie where the less you know about the plot, the more fun you'll have. The movie starts with the camera tracking through the Florida Everglades; when the title flashes on-screen, a crocodile pokes his snout up through the water. As McNaughton says in his director's commentary, that's his way of signaling the predators that slink through the movie. Dillon plays a respected high school teacher in a swanky Florida enclave who's accused of rape by Richards, the daughter of the richest woman in town. Just as he's about to go to trial, another student (Neve Campbell), this one from the wrong side of the tracks, accuses him of the same thing. And the who's-doing-who circus is set in motion, with Kevin Bacon as the bullet-head hotshot cop who knows he smells a rat but can't nail the vermin down.

Much of the movie's fun lies in the actors' deadpan gusto. Even Dillon's pained integrity ("I don't fuck my students") is a joke. The wild cards in the spiffy supporting cast include Robert Wagner, all puffed-up propriety as a lawyer to the outrageously rich, and Bill Murray, all shyster seediness as Dillon's lawyer, a man who revels in the big case that's come his way like a dog routing through a platter of ribs. (One of the highlights of the deleted scenes is a "negotiation" between Wagner and Murray, where Murray takes grubby delight in getting the best of this smoothie.) The movie also features Theresa Russell, who leaves behind years of bad performances in her husband Nicholas Roeg's movies, playing Richards' hot-to-trot rich mama in a style that suggests her greatest ambition was always to be Dorothy Malone.

But it's Richards and Campbell who give the movie its kick, and not just because of their love scenes together. (In a recent interview Richards confessed to not knowing why guys are so fascinated with those scenes. But as Paul Reiser once said of men's attraction to love scenes between women, "We agree with both of them.") Richards, with her curves and sinfully pouty lips, looks like she was put together by a committee of porn aficionados. (She also bears an amusing resemblance to the most squeaky-clean of porn stars, the exquisitely monickered Raquel Darrian.) Richards does exactly what she's supposed to do here: fulfill the fantasy functions of portraying both a "nice" girl embracing the dirty-girl within and the treacherous femme fatale. She's good enough to come off as the spiritual daughter of Martha Vickers' nympho little sister in "The Big Sleep." Campbell has a couple of terrific big scenes, especially when Bacon finds her reading "Journey to the End of the Night" and she praises Celine for "having a pretty good line on what cheap fucks people are." With her henna tattoos and layers of black eyeliner, Campbell is a sociopathic punk raccoon, just as resourceful, adept at scrabbling into all sorts of nooks and crannies.

Everything in "Wild Things" is right on the surface, which is why, in the director's commentary, John McNaughton is reduced to commenting on the color of a jeep as we see a shot of the dripping-wet Richards washing a car. You don't need a guide through the sleazy pleasures of "Wild Things" -- just a willingness to pamper your own inner lech.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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