I got an hour into L.A. Confidential before I began to snicker when the actors still hadn't dropped their impressions of Leslie Nielsen from Police Squad. Wild Things rewarded me with its first belly laugh half an hour in, when supporting hacktress Theresa Russell thunders to a police investigator, "No one rapes my daughter in Blue Cove!"
There are those who would argue that the overlap between the two movies--corrupt cops, pillars of the community buttressing corruption, double-crosses turning into triple- and quadruple-crosses--isn't enough to justify a comparison. But it scarcely matters how many miles or decades separate one film noir from another; the inhabitants of this genre all speak the same language and observe the same customs. Some happen to be ingenious and innovative (Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, which used Los Angeles sunlight the way Howard Hawks used shadow), others respectful but leaden (L.A. Confidential), and some dumb, drunken, profane, and frequently nude (Wild Things).
What does separate Curtis Hanson's critical hit from Wild Things is the illusion of credibility. Hanson and crew wanted us to think they're delivering something more than serviceable homage because their lead characters are--let me flip through my anthology of Cahiers du Cinema essays here--"morally ambiguous." Translation: A cop in L.A. Confidential isn't just a dim-witted thug, he's a dim-witted thug with a soft spot in his heart for damsels in distress because he watched his mother get beaten when he was a kid. The only thing ambiguous about this tired trope is the critical slipperiness it takes to transform a movie you enjoyed--probably because you have a soft spot for noir in general, as many "serious" critics (i.e., those who don't vote with their thumbs) do--into a monumental cinematic achievement.
There'll be no mistaking Wild Things for a great film. Director John McNaughton has a resume (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Mad Dog and Glory) that's more fascinating and eclectic than Curtis "The River Wild" Hanson's. So much so, you're a little bowled over by the sheer absurdity of his story about a seafaring high school guidance counselor (Matt Dillon) who becomes involved in a rape hoax with a spoiled rich girl (Denise Richards) and "the girl from the wrong side of the tracks" (as Neve Campbell is actually referred to here) to gouge money from a slutty South Florida widow (Theresa Russell). Kevin Bacon steps in as the police investigator who's suspiciously eager to pursue Dillon.
Wild Things reaches such dizzying heights of wretched dialogue, creaky contrivances, and panting performances, you're forced to wonder if the filmmakers realized how bad their script was and switched gears into pure camp at some point during the shoot. The almost-complicity of Matt Dillon's knowing smirk, and the brief, unequivocally comic appearance of Bill Murray as an insurance-gouging lawyer, keeps you off-guard enough to reserve judgment, until the film lasts 20 minutes too long just to play out one tedious reversal of fortune after another. The smugness of the filmmakers' unsurprising, "here's another surprise" plot-somersaults would be offensive if it weren't so clueless.
And speaking of smug, you can feel how proud performers like Kevin Bacon and Neve Campbell are to be taking "risks" with such adult material. Campbell obviously thinks she's hot for using phrases such as "fucked in the ass" and exchanging two steamy bisexual kisses with Denise Richards. But she's still too shy to expose her breasts; conspicuously, her shirt remains in place during the champagne-soaked threesome with Matt Dillon and a birthday-suited Denise Richards.
And speaking of exposure, I'd have laughed if you told me I'd see Kevin's bacon in anything except some unauthorized, homemade videotape. But the Jimmy Stewart of the '90s (that's not facetious; Bacon has a honey-sweet everyguy charm that makes you like him no matter how much of a bastard he plays) steps out of the shower in a full frontal shot that's as gratuitous as Campbell's wallflower-at-the-orgy modesty. Nude pix of unlikely stars are a hot commodity on the Internet these days, and since Bacon already has a Net game--"Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon"--this scene should be a welcome addition to his cyber-cottage industry. Let's call it "Six Inches of Kevin Bacon."
Well, maybe seven.
Directed by John McNaughton. Written by Stephen Peters. Starring Matt Dillon, Kevin Bacon, and Neve Campbell. Opens Friday.