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Terrible Teens

Still have your doubts that Western civilization has been conquered by sixth-grade dropouts snorting meth? No longer. Hollywood has just now released the first film noir for teenagers--a boiling stew of greed, betrayal, murder and three-way sex in which the female characters have not yet graduated from high school and the male lead is, well, their guidance counselor.

Wild Things may sound like a porn flick shot for 2,000 bucks in some sleazebag's basement, but it's not. That's Kevin Bacon's name up there on the marquee, along with Matt Dillon's. And the softly begowned figure overlooking the proceedings, blazing torch held aloft, is the majestic logo lady from Columbia Pictures.

Even if you ignore its plodding clumsiness and sheer predictability, this is one atrocious piece of moviemaking. Director John McNaughton, whose reputation rests on the gruesome and grossly overrated Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, seems to have studied the timeless lust-and-money thrillers of Wilder and Hawks through the eyes of a child molester. His camera roams over the flesh of Scream/Scream 2 icon Neve Campbell and fashion model Denise Richards like Bill Clinton's hands. He insists on stuffing enough T and A into the thing to furnish ten episodes of Baywatch. But he needs a bewildering sequence of flashbacks, cut into the closing credits, to tie up all his loose ends.

That's probably because McNaughton and writer Stephen Peters are so busy pandering to the vainest fantasies of the most material young shopaholics--Land Rover in the garage, big sailboat at the dock, romantic dreamboat waiting naked on the beach with a foaming magnum of champagne--that there's no time left for narrative.

In other words, here's trash TV blown up on the big screen--stripped of all superfluous clothing but cluttered up with tortuous twists and turns of plot the perpetrators have lifted from dozens of other, more distinguished movies. Meanwhile, you half expect Crockett and Tubbs, dressed in sherbet-hued sports jackets, to pop in from Miami Vice.

Want a hint to help you unravel the movie's overwrought tangles of double-cross and conspiracy? Keep your eye on the only person here who owns a book. Books mean high IQ, ain't you heard? Even in this bomb's overheated version of South Florida, where every bikini is stuffed to the rivets and visiting moviemakers can't help using the local alligators as writhing phallic symbols and the steam of the swamp as the emblem of tropical evil.

How Kevin Bacon, one of the most talented actors of his generation, got mixed up in this thing is a riddle only his agent can solve. Make that his former agent. "Were you ever in a situation," Bacon's character muses, "when you saw something bad coming and you didn't do anything about it?" The actor has to be asking himself the same question.

The basics, more or less: Rugged High School Guidance Counselor and Weekend Playboy Sam Lombardo (Dillon) has been trying to screw his way to prosperity in the moneyed enclave of Blue Bay, where the schoolgirls are all Lolitas bursting out of their short shorts and their corrupt mothers spend the afternoons boffing hard-bodied social climbers like Sam. Kelly Van Ryan (Richards) is a Spoiled Little Rich Girl With an Astonishing Collection of Bathing Suits who can't stand her socialite mother, Sandra (Theresa Russell). Suzie Toller (Campbell) is the obligatory Girl From the Wrong Side of the Tracks Who Wants Some Things Herself. And Ray Duquette (Bacon) is the familiar Nosy Local Cop Who Thinks Things Don't Add Up when both Kelly and Suzie accuse their teacher of rape.

"There was no relationship," Sam testifies, sounding very much like a certain guy at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Here's a surprise: Things don't add up. But no one who's seen even one other mystery thriller would presume, right off the bat, to say who's zoomin' who. Everybody but the alligators has a motive for getting his/her hands on evil Sandra Van Ryan's $8 million. Little matter that the plot is so full of holes that the moviemakers themselves seem baffled by it. Their theory seems to be that if you submerge enough good-looking children like Campbell and Richards into a moonlit swimming pool, then pull down their skivvies, logic will take care of itself. These are beautiful young women, without a doubt. They are displayed here like cuts of filet mignon.

The most you can say for Dillon, who's, uh, bulked up a bit, is that he looks reasonably cool in a flowered shirt and a pair of Ray-Bans. The best you can say for Bill Murray, who does a bit here as the obligatory Shabby South Florida Personal Injury Lawyer With a Storefront Office, is that he squeezes every possible inch of comic mileage out of his thrift-shop wardrobe, junker car and unshaven jowls.

It would be a grave disservice to film-noir classics such as Double Indemnity or Brute Force to compare McNaughton's impoverished mutant--let's call it Bubble Gum Noir--to any of them, except to say that he labors to twist and turn, he kills off his share of characters, and in the end, it's only the money that matters. That is where Wild Things, which at times borders on flagrant child abuse, ceases to resemble a real movie. As a kind of anti-bonus, it also features the most ludicrous, unconvincing courtroom scenes I've ever seen in a movie theater. Suffice it to say, McNaughton has given us a wet T-shirt contest, by way of a boat and auto show, in the guise of a mystery.

Seen (or heard) another way, Wild Things is also a soundtrack that happens to be illustrated with pictures. The two dozen tunes employed here (Tito Puente to Lauren Christy to Smash Mouth) will go together nicely on a CD, and that may be precisely what the studio had in mind in the first place.

Wild Things.
Screenplay by Stephen Peters. Directed by John McNaughton. With Kevin Bacon, Matt Dillon, Neve Campbell and Denise Richards.

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