Thursday, December 29, 2011

"Wild Things," I Think I Love You...

If you frequent this site, then you know that running into anything close to a contemporary movie (or movie star!) here is a rare event indeed. With a release year of 1998, today's film is probably one of the newest ever to get a turn in the spotlight, though 1998 was, by now, fourteen years ago! Released at a time when I lived near two cinemas (a big, first-run behemoth and a $1.00 admission, second-run joint) and saw probably 60% of all releases, it was a movie I witnessed right upon its debut. I wasn't about to miss it since the advance publicity made it clear that one of the two leading men had a rather shocking nude scene (though I greedily would have liked for both of them do have done one!) The movie was Wild Things and its innate squalor and tawdriness made me a fan from the start.
Wild Things kicks off with atmospheric George S. Clinton music played over shots of swampy Florida Everglades scenery, with carnivorous alligators slithering around in the water. Soon, we come upon a high school situated near the (fictional), ritzy community of Blue Bay. Combination guidance counselor and sailing instructor (!) Matt Dillon is addressing the student body in preparation for a seminar on sex crimes, also preparing the audience for what will be in store in the process. In attendance as guest speakers are local police detectives Kevin Bacon and Daphne Rubin-Vega. In the audience are students Neve Campbell (a “goth” with dark lips and plenty of body art, tough clothing and colorized hair) and Denise Richards (a curvy, pert, ripe blonde who gets easily aroused.) For reasons beyond our understanding, she takes no attention whatsoever in the cute, preppie guy who has obvious interest in her, giving him a quick and nasty, "Fuck OFF!," the first real bit of dialogue in the movie.

After the seminar, Richards requests a ride home from Dillon who obliges (in addition to taking home a male student, Cory Pendergrast - shown below left, as well.) Though all the students seem to like and/or be attracted to Dillon, Pendergrast is perhaps closest to him, suggesting that there might eventually be more to his character than there ultimately is. Richards mocks this relationship somewhat when she looks at Dillon and says, "Can I play, too? Or is it just for boys?" She is revealed to be living in a stunning, waterfront, gated community with her mother Theresa Russell. Ever one to bat her eyes and get her way, she convinces Dillon that she and a friend should come to his house on the upcoming Sunday to wash his Jeep which will be splattered from mud after a fishing trip.

Richards and one of her pals show up to give the Jeep a detailed and very sudsy going over, not unlike the scrubbing that Joy Harmon gave her vehicle in Cool Hand Luke, getting herself all wet while a gaggle of horny chain gang prisoners looked on. She actually looks Dillon in the face and utters the line, “So, where's your hose, Mr. Lombardo?” By the time the Jeep is dried off, Richards is dripping wet herself and she sends her friend away, entering Dillon's house and standing there seductively like the tarty little Lolita she aspires to be. Thing is, she's soon after seen running down the street in distress and then misses school the following day.

Russell gets a call from the school while she happens to be midway through a ravaging sexual encounter with one of her hunky employees. Her limited concern is halted when she spies Richards out on the edge of the ocean skeet-shooting determinedly. Before long, Richards confesses to Russell that she was raped by Dillon and the community is soon up in arms.
What's more, before Dillon can even be interrogated in the matter, Campbell comes forward and announces that she, too, was raped by Dillon and with circumstances similar to Richards' involved in the incident. Dillon hires low-rung attorney Bill Murray and braces himself for the end of his teaching career, all the while serving time in jail with a rather imposing cell mate who greets him with the line, “So you're the new chicken licker...” Shifty Murray wears a neck brace whenever he's in public for fear that an insurance investigator will discover that he's actually quite healthy!

Detective Bacon seems to have it in for Dillon (and the two create a sort of homoerotic, one-upsmanship battle of wills that is, at times, palpable.) They square off, with macho posturing, on a couple of occasions in stare-downs that almost suggest the age-old solution “Come on, guys... Just whip 'em out and let's see who's the bigger man!” Before the movie is over, one of them does just that, but that's later!
Russell has a high-powered, well-connected lawyer on her side (played by none other than Robert Wagner!) and cannot wait to nail Dillon to the wall for his alleged crimes. It turns out that the two of them had once enjoyed a fling of their own, which he refused to reignite despite her pleading. Trouble is, in the heat of the court case, something goes terribly wrong and Dillon is acquitted of all charges. Now the tables have turned and he is in a position to exact his own brand of revenge against the privileged “haves” who treated him like so much pond scum (even Wagner's daughter had been dating Dillon until Wagner put a stop to it.) With Murray's aid, he sues Russell for damages.

This is only a fraction of the story and to go into it more would surely spoil it for those who have yet to see it. Suffice it to say that the script is absolutely riddled with plot twists, steamy sexual encounters, audacious situations and a passel of hooty dialogue. Where else are you going to hear Robert “Jonathan Hart” Wagner say, “It'll be all I can do to keep her fucking little ass out of jail!”?? Russell gets a healthy share of the instantly campy dialogue, too, shouting, “My daughter does NOT get raped in Blue Bay!”
The viewer tries to piece together the virtually incomprehensible plot (which is “explained” in a sequence of scenes shown during the closing credits, filling some of the holes that had remained in the body of the movie in order to retain the element of surprise.) The characters keep folding in on one another (to what is, honestly, a preposterous degree, but we don't particularly care because the performers are attractive to look at, as is the local scenery, and there's a sexual tension resting over everything that keeps us on our toes.)

In a rather startling example of the change in technology over the last decade and a half, there are no cell phones (as we know them) in use, but rather corded landlines and a couple of cordless monstrosities that are hysterically amusing to behold now. Richards, who no doubt would be owning a state-of-the-art phone at her mansion, uses a ginormous cordless phone with a massive circular antenna on it!

There are also a few scenes involving phallic imagery. Dillon takes a free-wheeling ride across the swamps of the Everglades, steering his vehicle with a long, hard staff that he grips boldly (and which is featured in at least one close up.) Also, he later grabs hold of a bubbly bottle of champagne, it's foaming, unable-to-stay-restrained contents constantly threatening to explode, much like the simmering sexual passions of his character. (But, you know, once it begins to come out, there's precious little chance of stopping it! I mean the champagne - or do I?!)

In any case, the film trots along until, finally, the promised moment arrives, Bacon is shown taking a scalding hot shower, enveloped in steam, which clears in time to reveal a rear shot, followed by a side view of the full monty. Kevin's bacon (appropriately finagled with in order to not appear completely flaccid) makes its screen debut. Bacon, an executive producer on the film, had a no-nudity clause in his contract and claimed at the time that he believed the shot would be filmed closer and from the waist up, not back so far that everything would be visible. (Why then didn't he, like 99% of movie actors generally do, cover himself up with moleskin or wear shorts pulled way down during the shooting? I'm a touch skeptical about this story and think that more likely the promise of his nudity ensured that the movie would make back its investment at the box office, thanks to all of his curious fans. The movie did return its cost in ticket sales by over 50%.)

Anyway, on purpose or not, the onscreen moment swiftly became a hot topic. What would have been even hotter was a proposed scene which would have had Dillon JOINING Bacon in said shower for a little bit of interplay! The director finally nixed this idea as being “gratuitous.” Like the entire movie isn't gratuitous in the extreme?! It's just a big, trashy puzzle box, never meant to be taken seriously, so why stop there? We wish the scene had been filmed nevertheless and included as a DVD extra (the “deleted scenes” on the DVD happen to be very lame for the most part.) Like many movies, there were several scenes trimmed down or eliminated prior to the final cut. This shot from Richards' high school graduation is from a scene that doesn't appear in the film as released (nor is it among the DVD's deleted scenes section.)

By this time, Bacon had done much to expand his range as an actor. Having started as a film actor in the hit smash Animal House in 1978, he had trouble capitalizing on its success and retreated to the world of daytime soap operas and exploitation fare like the original Friday the 13th. Thankfully, Diner (in 1982) and the enormous success of Footloose (in 1984) helped to springboard him to bigger things. Some of his major hits before Wild Things included Flatliners, A Few Good Men, The River Wild and Apollo 13 (and of course he had also taken a zesty supporting role in JFK.) Always one with an eye towards avoiding typecasting, he went on to My Dog Skip and The Hollow Man (which included some CGI-augmented frontal nudity from him as well.) He continues to turn in dynamic performances today.

Dillon, having made an impression as a young actor in Little Darlings and My Bodyguard (both 1980) could easily have become just another teen star who later fell out of the limelight, but he also strove to play a variety of parts and, more importantly, sought work with strong directors whenever possible in order to build up his career. Just prior to Wild Things, he'd been part of the comedic ensemble of In & Out, but it was his film after this that gave him a big boost (and further proved his variety as an actor.) There's Something About Mary was a monster smash. Note how this Entertainment Weekly cover publicizing Wild Things has Dillon in his Mary mustache! He later won an Oscar nomination for his supporting work in 2004's Crash (losing to George Clooney in Syriana.) He and Bacon reunited in 2005 when Bacon made his directorial debut with Loverboy. Dillon's Wild Things role had initially belonged to Robert Downey Jr (then in the midst of a serious battle with drugs), but he dropped out, proceeding to film The Gingerbread Man and U.S. Marshalls, the sequel to The Fugitive, instead.

In any event, this is quite possibly the most handsome, for me, that Mr. Dillon has ever been as I have a fondness for chest hair, even if it's clipped down as his is here, and also love men with neatly cropped hair. Of course, it also doesn't hurt that he's sensuously carnal through many of his scenes.

Campbell had made a name for herself on the rather sticky family series Party of Five (1994 – 2000), but was also featured in the Scream movies, playing a nice girl. 1998 was the year she decided to mix things up with a one-two punch of roles that were far removed from her goody two shoes reputation. Wild Things, with its boatload of foul language, racy scenes and bits of violence, certainly fit that bill, but her other film, 54, was plagued by reshoots and extensive cutting in the editing room, removing a large amount of the sordidness and debauchery from it. She has continued to work steadily, one notable role being in The Company in 2003, while returning to the Scream well earlier this year for the fourth installment of the horror franchise.

One actress who was never shy about approaching racy material is Russell. In a part that was initially intended for Cynthia Nixon (who had to give it up in order to return to the shooting of Sex and the City), she has fun enacting her character's outrageous dialogue. She began her film career in 1976 with a supporting part in Elia Kazan's star-filled The Last Tycoon. In 1984, she inherited Anne Baxter's Oscar-winning role in The Razor's Edge, starring Bill Murray (a notorious bust that ensured that her decent work in the film would be seen by few.) In 1985, she won acclaim for Insignificance and two years later scored her first real triumph as an actress, playing the title figure in the Debra Winger thriller Black Widow. That film's success catapulted her into several starring parts, but in films that were less than stellar. She most often worked in her then-husband Nicholas Roeg's films, for better or worse. Still active today, she had a part in 2007's Spider-Man 3 and has acted steadily since.

Though a significant part of Wild Things' success hinges on her performance (which is exceedingly good, actually), Richards was so little-known at the time that she is fifth-billed. As a teen, she had done television guest roles on shows like Life Goes On, Saved by the Bell, Doogie Houser, M.D. and Beverly Hills, 90210. She continued to work on TV, with the occasional movie role until she was selected to costar in Paul Verhoeven's sci-fi extravaganza Starship Troopers. That was the film of hers prior to Wild Things. By this time, she was twenty-seven years old (!), but was not nearly as unbelievable as a high school student as many others have been through the years. She went on to the beauty pageant spoof Drop Dead Gorgeous and then to the James Bond film The World is Not Enough, where her role as a nuclear physicist had many a critic's tongue wagging. Since then, though she has continued to act, most of the attention given her has been due to her marriage to and divorce from Charlie Sheen and the never-ending carousel of lunacy which that has entailed.

This was quite a big step for stage actress Rubin-Vega in terms of visibility and role size in the movies. Most of her prior onscreen parts had been bits. She saunters around in a series of inappropriately snug skirts and high heels, as if she's gunning for the lead in a revamped rendition of the old cable detective series Silk Stalkings! She was one of the original cast members of Broadway's smash hit Rent, but her pregnancy at the time of filming prevented her from appearing in the film version that came out in 2005 (Rosario Dawson landing her part instead.) Though she has continued to make film appearances, her primary focus has remained on her music and stage career.

Wagner, who had been a busy and popular 20th Century Fox actor in the 1950s before turning to television where he remained successful, had been making only the most brief and sporadic appearances in movies since the early '80s. 1997 marked the year he worked in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, which helped lead to other things, including today's film. Since then, he's been a more frequent actor in features, though, apart from the Austin Powers flicks, not in anything of too much note.

Murray, legendary in the field of comedy for his work on Saturday Night Live (from 1977 – 1980) and a string of hit movies (including Meatballs, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day) was just about to enter a new realm of success as a quirky leading man in films like 1998's Rushmore and 2003's Lost in Translation (for which he was given and Oscar nomination as Best Actor, the winner being Sean Penn for Mystic River.) In Wild Things, he brings a sly, understated sense of the absurd to his role that is most welcome. Many laugh-out-loud moments crop up simply at the way he handles the simplest of moments.

Also popping up in Wild Things is Carrie Snodgress, a woman who earned an Oscar nomination as Best Actress for only her second real movie role (she'd been an uncredited bit player beforehand in Easy Rider and had played in Rabbit, Run with James Caan.) 1971's showcase Diary of a Mad Housewife then put her on the Hollywood map (though the Academy Award went that year to Glenda Jackson for Women in Love), but afterwards, she gave it all up to live with musician Neil Young and have their son. She returned in 1978 with Brian De Palma's The Fury, but to little fanfare. Though she did manage to act steadily in movies and on TV from then on, she was dead of heart and liver failure in 2004 at the age of fifty-eight. Her role in Wild Things, of a smoky, tacky sideshow proprietress, provides a fun dollop of camp to the proceedings. (In an alternate ending, she was to have an even more prominent presence.)

While the movie was a success at the box office, it really took flight on home video, where viewers could salivate over his or her object of desire in the privacy of home and with the freeze-frame button of the remote control handy. This success led to a series of straight-to-video sequels, none of which had any of the original stars in them, though they were all set in the same fictional south Florida locale. Though Wild Things director John McNaughton had previously helmed Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Mad Dog and Glory, his career went more towards television after this. There was talk in 2006 of a new film with Campbell and Richards (not a sequel) to be called “Backstabbers,” but it never materialized.

One must approach Wild Things with the right attitude, expecting nothing of substance and just absorbing the sensual and lascivious atmosphere along with the sometimes uproarious dialogue delivered by a game cast. The music, believe it or not, sometimes evokes Bernard Hermann's classic score from Vertigo! This is especially true in some of the courtroom scenes. I am certainly not known for finding women sexually attractive, but I must say that Denise Richards comes about as close as one could get here. Then there's Matt Dillon, looking about as good as he ever has. For a good/bad night at the movies, I can heartily recommend this.

2 comments:

Rob said...

Gawd, I love this film! Neve, Denise, Bill, Matt and Kevin--AND Theresa Russell?!
This is one of those movies that, if it's on, I end up watching it the whole way through. I've never heard before that Matt was supposed to join him in the shower-that would have made an already impossibly hot movie even hotter--please tell me this scene is in a deleted scenes extra!

Poseidon3 said...

Alas, Rob, I don't believe that the screen-scorching scene was ever filmed... Thanks for commenting!