Popcorn Love: Bill Murray in Wild Things (1998)
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 18, 2008
“Well, it’s sort of a good news, bad news situation….”
Have I really never written about Wild Things here before? Shameful for any number of reasons, especially for a movie that had so much to do with my filmic and personal development. The first time I saw Wild Things was on a Friday night where I had to get up early the next morning to go to a Bar Mitzvah, and I was able to stay up just late enough to see the movie’s first big plot twist, in the form of the Matt Dillon-Neve Campbell-Denise Richards three-way scene which still goes down in my book as the hottest sex scene ever to appear in a mainstream American film, and which I’ve seen enough times since that I could sketch it frame-by-frame from memory. It killed me to go to bed not knowing how the movie ended, and what possibly even hotter scenes laid beyond the horizon, but I mostly figured that was it, the main hook of the movie, and it’d be pretty by-the-numbers after that.
Well, not exactly–that year at summer camp, someone who’d stayed till the end of the movie described to me in surprisingly patient detail what happened afterwards, and I didn’t believe a word of it until I finally saw it with my own eyes later that year. Three more plot twists to follow, along with countless shifts of protagonist and antagonist, and one more sex scene of considerable note (though its full glory would not be seen until the release of Wild Things: The Unrated Edition on DVD a few years later). As a middle-schooler at the time, it was all utterly mindblowing–murder, turmoil, betrayal, and sex, all beyond that of any neo-noir I had ever seen before.
And then there’s Bill Murray. Now, I’ve preached before about the glories of casting where certain actors don’t really seem to notice what kind of movie they’re performing in (or, in some cases, that there’s even a movie going on at all), but as attorney Kenneth Bowden in Wild Things, Murray takes it to a new level of ridiculousness. Now, I know Murray’s career wasn’t exactly at it highest point in early 1998–two years after his villainous turn as Big Ern in Kingpin, and a few months before his performance in Rushmore would act as an unlikely resurrection of his career as an art-house darling–but how they got him to agree to what basically could be described as a generous walk-on cameo in this movie is beyond me.
Ken’s character in the movie is that of attorney to Sam Lombardo (Dillon), a low-class ambulance chaser who is the only person in the Louisiana town of Blue Bay willing to take on the powerful Van Ryan family in court, on the charges that Sam raped Kelly Van Ryan (Richards). Ken could be called the movie’s comic relief, I suppose, but the rest of Wild Things is so overdramatic that his few moments of levity–when he shows Sam that his neck injury is actually just to fake an insurance claim, or when his incompetent secretary answers his intercom message to her by standing up and shouting back–just seem kind of surreal. Meanwhile, Murray seems to be having the time of his life in the movie, hamming it up at every opportunity, especially the scene where after reaching a settlement with the Van Ryan family, he starts furiously rubbing the agreement all over his body in excitement, yelling “See you at the club!” to the family’s attorney.
And maybe the strangest part of Murray’s character in the movie, as well as the most overlooked part of all the movie’s twist endings, is that it appears that his character was in on the scam all along. When Suzie Toller (Campbell) finally turns out to be the mastermind behind all that preceded, Ken shows up as her lawyer, saying “Boy, I hope I never make you mad”–more or less implying that he knows of all the vengeance murders she’s recently orchestrated, including that of Lombardo, his recent client. In addition, he tells her that of the eight million he’s deposited for her of Sandra Van Ryan’s money, he’s deducted “his usual fee”–which I would think means that this isn’t even the first time she’s pulled shit like this with Ken acting as her bank. Bill Murray, you sly dog.
See now, I knew there was something separating this one from its two direct-to-TV sequels/ripoffs, Wild Things 2 and Wild Things 3: Diamonds in the Rough.