'Something Wild': Film Review

Directed by: Johnathan Demme, Runtime: 113 minutes
Grade: B

Before Jonathan Demme became a household name with The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, not to mention pulling an Academy Award-nominated performance from Anne Hathaway, he concocted a batch of quirky-toned pictures steeped in '80s aesthetic that balance shifty humor with a dark dramatic edge. One of those is Something Wild, a dark firecracker of a road comedy that follows a bumbling, tight-laced corporate guy (Jeff Daniels) whose lacing gets undone by a sultry and capricious vixen (Melanie Griffith), sporting a black wig and a pint of liquor like something straight out of a male fantasy. A kitschy burst clearly driven by a magnetic cast, Demme rewards those that go along with the story with a satisfying rush of unbridled wit -- and a surprisingly intense left-hook nearing its close.

The two meet while in an unremarkable New York cafe, where Lulu (Griffith) catches a glimpse of Charlie (Daniels) skipping out on his bill. She sees that he's in a suit, sporting a briefcase and a demeanor that befits someone well-off enough to cover the bill, so she provokes him outside the shop. They engage in a back-and-forth that leads to the uncomfortably-grinning Charlie succumbing to the sultry-eyed woman, where she gets him in the passenger seat of her car and keep him there under the guise that he -- a seemingly-happy family man -- needs an afternoon off, whether he's willing or not. Eventually, Something Wild reveals exactly the kind of woman Lulu is: a mysterious imp with an eye for quality scotch, a handful of sticky fingers, and absolutely no pause in ditching her convertible for another.

At first, it's hard not to wonder whether Charlie -- a father of two who has just become vice president of accounting, who's also lugging around a fistful of company assets -- would really go against his better judgment and surrender to the seductive influence Lulu blankets over him outside the café. For the sake of oddball comedy, and for the curious chemistry between Jeff Daniels and Melanie Griffith, it's worth shrugging off the hesitation with Something Wild and hopping in the car alongside them, allowing the mystery behind their motives to guide the film's impulsive momentum. The infectious rhythm between the two helps, making it easy to relish in Charlie's tongue-tied eagerness to cut loose as we try to figure out Lulu's angle -- burglary, a pure craving to corrupt a decent man, or maybe that impromptu trip to Pennsylvania that she eventually mentions.

Covered in accoutrements that dress her up a little like Cleopatra, Lulu's an unruly, booze-driven enigma caught in her own brazen world, one where she lugs around handcuffs in her purse and chugs Seagram's while driving her beater of a vehicle. But after we see her lusciously manhandle Charlie in a hotel room and let him live to tell the tale, so to speak, she becomes even tougher to nail down. That's what makes her a stimulating character, and why Something Wild likely stands out as the pinnacle of Melanie Griffith's career. Her careful, paced verbal delivery softens what could've been a harder-edged woman, and her alluring mannerisms fit Griffith like a glove. Perhaps it's because she easily comes across as someone who's disguising herself from the world, possibly for no other reason than her own mischief.

Once they reach Pennsylvania, Lulu's -- or, should I say, Audrey's -- intentions become clear, taking Something Wild to common territory with identity dishonesty and the unlikely romance between two people rebelling in their own ways. But E. Max Frye's perceptive and often humorous script reveals desperation in the pair that's not readily apparent early on, reaching a touching fine point in the midst of a high-school reunion in wild child Lulu's hometown. Demme orchestrates the scene with whimsical doe-eyed glimpses and compassionate dramatic bursts between the couple, backed by patriotic banners, hardwood floors, Moonwalking and the sound of '80s band The Feelies shifting the aural tone, pumping the tender scene full of nostalgic fancy. What's interesting is that the chemistry between Charlie and Lulu themselves might not be that strong as they dance towards a happenstance romance, but the pull that these two empty, lacking individuals have offers its own magnetism, shrugging off the barriers that might've once separated them with their own need to fill a void. And it works, maybe even more so since their chemistry resists at first.

Demme offers enough screwball curiosities and expressive moments to draw attention to Something Wild in the beginning, but it doesn't really take shape until Ray's arrival -- more the actor than the actual character. Then newcomer Ray Liotta plays Lulu/Audrey's old flame (and husband), a brash, trigger-happy ex-con with his eyes set on getting his woman back. Ray's rash antics border on exemplifying stale stereotypes, from convenience store hold-ups to overarching emblazoned conversations with Charlie, yet Liotta's inspired, frightening temperament transform conventional mannerisms into acts of stunning severity. His cackling laugh, chiseled chin, and wild piercing eyes bottle the actor's tenacity at its most distilled, adjusting the character's familiar tune into something quite mesmerizing. His crazed flailing in the convenience store makes for several wide-eyed, slyly humorous moments.

Ray's entrance also marks another significant turn in the compellingly inconsistent Something Wild, leading the comedy into unnerving and cynical territory that reveals both the solemn and obsessive sides of those involved in the love triangle. Once again, Demme and E. Max Frye lure their audience into embarking on a foolish against-character adventure with Charlie as he confronts Ray, yet we've experienced enough with the burgeoning renegade accountant to learn that he's wittingly throwing caution to the wind for his own self-perceived liberation -- and, of course, for the affection he's invested in his once-captor. With several versions of "Wild Thing" cropping up throughout the picture's robust soundtrack, we're almost convinced that maybe he really is a bit wild himself, or just trying to be for the sake of re-imagining himself. Charlie does seem to get an awful lot of joy out of venturing to the wild side, and we derive a lot of pleasure in watching him cut loose.

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