In the blue-chip Florida enclave of Blue Bay, the sex is as steamy as the climate. "Wild Things" captures the passions of the area's haves and have-nots and gives them a wicked comic spin audiences won't quickly forget. Sly, torrid and original, pic is certain to shake up an otherwise complacent marketplace.

In the blue-chip Florida enclave of Blue Bay, the sex is as steamy as the climate. “Wild Things” captures the passions of the area’s haves and have-nots and gives them a wicked comic spin audiences won’t quickly forget. Sly, torrid and original, pic is certain to shake up an otherwise complacent marketplace. That will translate into upbeat theatrical returns for the eccentric item and strong action in ancillaries. If the film attains sufficient commercial momentum, expect comparable B.O. power in overseas exploitation.

Imagine “Double Indemnity” cast young, “Twin Peaks” basked in sunshine and a lethal “Grosse Pointe Blank” and you have a fair indication of the viewing experience. Not only is it highly unusual, but the picture is chock-full of surprise and unexpected humor to leaven its thriller trappings.

On the surface, it’s about high-nosed teen socialite Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards) discovering her sexuality and finding out she can’t get whatever she wants: Her moves on guidance counselor Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon) have been met with indifference. But that doesn’t stop her from crying rape.

Though well-liked and respected, the social-climbing Lombardo can’t compete with the Van Ryan wealth and influence. He’s barred from the country club, shunned by the community and suspended from the school. Unable to secure a top-flight attorney, he’s forced to enlist personal-injuries lawyer Ken Bowden (Bill Murray), who proves more shrewd than the army of legal eagles Kelly’s mother — and Sam’s former lover (Theresa Russell) –employs to destroy the teacher.

It looks grim when another teenager, the trailer-trash Suzie Toller (Neve Campbell), comes forward with a carbon-copy tale of Sam’s advances. But in cross-examination, Bowden breaks the witness Perry Mason-style, and she spills the beans about the plot she and Kelly concocted to ruin the accused.

Played with arched eyebrows, the opening section of the film comes perilously close to soap opera parody. Murray — who plays most of his role in a medical collar — is delightfully outrageous as he assails community pillars and topples a house of cards. Still, the story demands further explanation for both the audience and local investigating cop Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon), who’s convinced the two young women were in league with Sam in bilking Kelly’s mother of some $8.5 million.

“Wild Things” really gets cooking once it begins unraveling “facts” to get at the truth. Stephen Peters’ script relentlessly juxtaposes passion and ambiguity, and even the most detailed road map of the story will lead one hopelessly off course. It’s not that the script cheats, but that the filmmakers have provided just enough information to allow us to arrive at the wrong conclusion.

Director John McNaughton goes way out on a limb, confident the screenplay will be his safety net. That confidence is not unwarranted. His first bold stoke is to cast his four principals against type. Dillon, who normally assays reliable, likable types, is the picture of duplicity, while the sort of canny characters Bacon is associated with are brushed away for a dumb cop with a good gut. The young women, the good girls of “Scream” and “Starship Troopers,” become the wanton wenches from both sides of the tracks. Toss in Russell, Murray, the too rarely used Carrie Snodgress and the perennially smooth Robert Wagner, and you have an ensemble that appears to be enjoying the challenge of offbeat roles and unusual material. There’s not a wrong note struck by the game group of players.

Generally associated with grittier fare, McNaughton stretches his reach with a high-sheen package. Elegantly shot by Jeffrey Kimball and dressed to the nines by designer Edward T. McAvoy, “Wild Things” has a glossy, unreal quality that nicely dovetails with the pulse of the drama. Perhaps the biggest obstacle confronting the film is keeping its twists and secrets under wraps.

Wild Things

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures/Mandalay Entertainment presentation. Produced by Rodney Liber, Steven A. Jones. Executive producer, Kevin Bacon. Directed by John McNaughton. Screenplay, Stephen Peters.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Jeffrey L. Kimball; editor, Elena Maganini; music, George S. Clinton; production designer, Edward T. McAvoy; art director, Bill Hiney; set decorator, Bill Cimino; costume designer, Kimberly A. Tillman; sound (Dolby, SDDS), Peter J. Devlin; assistant directors, John R. Woodward, Bruce Franklin; casting, Linda Lowry, John Brace. Reviewed at the UA Westwood, March 16, 1998. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 108 MIN.

With

Ray Duquette - Kevin Bacon Sam Lombardo - Matt Dillon Suzie Toller - Neve Campbell Sandra Van Ryan - Theresa Russell Kelly Van Ryan - Denise Richards Gloria Perez - Daphne Rubin-Vega Tom Baxter - Robert Wagner Ken Bowden - Bill Murray Ruby - Carrie Snodgress Bryce Hunter - Jeff Perry Jimmy Leach - Cory Pendergast Walter - Marc Macaulay Nicole - Toi Svane

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