Well they did it. They made an “ain’t I a stinker” movie about Ted Bundy, one of America’s most notorious serial killers. While there is plenty of evidence (some shown during the film’s end credits) that Bundy truly was something of an “ain’t I a stinker” character in real life, it’s difficult to deny that the film’s omissions, casting, dialog, costuming and needle drops indicate this is a supposed to be a funny movie, even a fun one.
The morals of that are curious. If Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile really is trying to be a thorough examination of a monster, it is a confused and ultimately failed endeavor. If it just wants to be a fun comedy about Ted Bundy, it weirdly succeeds. Most likely the intentions rest somewhere in between. Maybe it doesn’t matter, though. The film works, whatever it was trying to do. I wouldn’t call this an objectively good movie, but perhaps appropriately given its subject, I was unable to rise above its charms.
Extremely Wicked wants us to like Zac Efron’s Ted Bundy. We all enter the film with knowledge of Bundy’s crimes, but it nevertheless wants us to fall for him just as his victims did. As such, it eschews portrayals of his murders and instead focuses on his wooing of single mother Elizabeth Kloepfer (Lily Collins). And man, is he a sweetheart. Bundy is the model of a good man, both an attentive partner and kind father - when he’s not out killing ladies. Bundy and Kloepfer’s bond is not some one-sided thing either. According to the film, anyway, Bundy’s love for Kloepfer is genuine and never goes away. Even years after their last romantic contact, he can’t shake her, nor can she shake him.
That is essentially the film’s through-line, but it gets lost about halfway through as director Joe Berlinger switches attention to Bundy’s prison escapes and circus of a trial, which plays like exaggerated fiction despite much of it being true. The film truly shines here as it switches from narrative to all-out actor showcase, and I honestly wish the whole thing could have been an adaptation of this trial. All of it. Make it a miniseries, I don’t care.
Zac Efron is simply electric. It’s not just a great performance, but an exemplary comedy performance, which is even more impressive. We knew Efron could do legit comedy, but this is on a whole different playing field, requiring levels of subtlety that take real control. I don’t think resemblance is all that important in biopics, but it must be said that there are moments and angles here where Efron is indistinguishable from the actual Bundy.
Yet even the wattage of Efron firing on all cylinders must take a backseat to John Malkovich as Judge Edward Cowart, who steals all his scenes. This is partly due to Cowart’s highly idiosyncratic dialog, which appears to be verbatim as we hear some of it during the end credits. But Malkovich’s delivery is all his own, and it is brilliant, an odd mixture of authority, nonchalance and sincerity that blows me away. At times you think he’s on Bundy’s side. Others, he doesn’t seem to like Bundy very much at all. By the end, you realize there’s just no knowing what on his mind from one moment to the next. He’s too sharp.
There is an interesting thing going on with the way Extremely Wicked portrays its other side characters. When it comes to period hair and costuming, characters we’re meant to take seriously, such as Kloepfer, appear natural and muted. Meanwhile, others are outfitted almost like cartoon characters. On top of that, there is an air of stunt casting, perhaps starting with Efron. Haley Joel Osment’s inclusion feels a bit like this. James Hatfield shows up at one point.
It’s all very weird, which I suppose is in keeping with Extremely Wicked’s entire existence. There is an attempt made near the film’s end to tie everything we just saw to the horrific reality of Bundy’s crimes that maybe worked on paper as a way to justify the more SNL aspects of the film but doesn’t connect as executed. On the other hand, it occurs to me that a straight, dramatic telling of this story would also have problems as Bundy’s exuberance and charm would be tainted by violent tension, whereas here it is allowed to run rampant and dupe us all. It’s easier to just admit I had a blast watching the movie as is, even if I feel a little bit guilty about all the laughter I gave it.