Something Wild, Jonathan Demme, 1986
“It’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion.”
What does that mean? To Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels), it means quite a lot. He is a NYC corporate VP, living the high life with a nice house in the suburbs, a cheerful wife, two kids, and doggone it, he’s just a swell guy. Or is he? Enter Lulu.
Lulu, real name Audrey (Melanie Griffith) lives on the wild side, and somehow catches Driggs in the act of rebellion. He leaves a restaurant without paying. It could have been a simple mistake, or it could have been his own way of non-conformity, of living wildly despite his privileged status. From there the fun ensues. Lulu and Charlie take off on an adventure of their own. He blows off his professional responsibilities, and they find a unique bond in their opposing values and lifestyles. Lulu wears a short, dark wig, somewhere in between a brunette Madonna and 80s goth, with different colored bracelets that cover her arms and neck, while Charlie wears a bland blue business suit with a yellow tie.
The first third is part romp and part road movie. This contrast of cultures is unsettling and welcoming, as Charlie and Lulu see how the other half lives. They may joke and criticize each other’s worldviews and clothing choices, but they make for an odd, yet somewhat refreshing match. Meanwhile, the film is shot with attention to color and detail, a lot of greens, background graffiti art, and popular radio songs
After using Charlie to masquerade as her fake husband to impress her mother, Audrey takes him to her high school graduation to impress her old friends. Here is the tonal shift in the movie. She changes her appearance to look a little more like somewhere between traditional, classy Madonna and Grace Kelly. At the party, they meet one man from Charlie’s world and one from Audrey’s, while The Feelies (a somewhat underground post-punk group) plays cover songs for the dance. Charlie encounters Larry from his office accounting, and Audrey embarrasses him during the exchange, while Audrey meets Ray, who turns out to be a former flame with even more of a wild streak.
This is where it’s worth exploring what the movie is saying about corporate culture. Remember, this is fresh in the middle of the Reaganomic 1980s, where youngsters were expressing themselves in colorful, cheerful ways, and the status quo of the suburban and corporate lifestyle was seen as square. This defines the two main characters to a tee. Lulu is beyond hip, the kind of girl that 1980s girls adored and wanted to emulate, while Charlie was the schmuck whose life was seen as mundane and boring. Real life and culture was passing him by.
When Larry the Accountant learns that Charlie is having an affair with Audrey, who even in her prom getup, is far hipper than his pregnant wife Peggy. He smiles at Charlie and says, “I didn’t think you had it in you.” In a look, you can tell he idolizes his office VP and in part envies him. The wife, however, is not of the same mind and wants to get away.
Audrey is a tough nut to crack. At times she seems endearing and playful with Charlie, while other times she is malicious and humiliating. When she tells Larry about their tryst, that is a breach of trust and also a lie. She says they are expecting a baby. In this way she is trying to shatter the image of the corporate schmuck, and she succeeds in the eyes of Larry, if not to herself.
Despite the earlier moment of rebellion at the restaurant, Charlie comes off as an upstanding and moralistic guy. He does not want to get in trouble with his expense accounts, which Lulu takes advantage of, and he even condemns foul language in a later scene. He is even monogamous to his fake marriage with Audrey, when his “real” marriage is revealed to have been over for next to a year. He is an ambiguous figure, ultimately good, but with a little wickedness that probably fills an emotional hole within him. Audrey is swiss cheese when it comes to emotional holes, but together. they can let themselves go and even dance like dorks, without caring how they look.
Ray (Ray Liotta) is a different breed entirely. He is unquestionably part of the criminal element, and the audience sees through his charade even if Charlie buys right in. He manipulates Charlie into participating in a store robbery, and that’s where the road trip becomes something more dire and serious. Maybe Charlie could have fit into Lulu’s world, but Ray’s world is somewhere he could never live. He would get eaten alive, and in a sense, he does. However tonally different, the last chapter is engaging in a different way, mostly thanks to Liotta’s performance, and it unwinds toward its inevitable conclusion.
Something Wild has some elements of an art film and some as a road genre film, but it is unmistakably an 80s film. The soundtrack ranges from New Wave, poppy one-hit wonders, dark goth, and just to put the cherry on top, even includes some old school rap outside of a gas station. While some of the 80s nostalgia is fun to experience (or re-experience for someone who lived through the generation), it’s almost trapped by the time period, and that leaves it dated. In addition, while the finale is thrilling, the actual ending seems unrealistic and tacked on. It almost seems like something to appease a movie executive (however unlikely given Demme’s later comments).
Instead it is a mixed bag, all over the place tonally with some highs, lows, and like a lot of the 80s culture, something to be consumed and left behind.
Film Rating: 5.5/10
Jonathan Demme Interview – He had worked on Swing Shift, which he felt was destroyed by studio and he wanted to get out. Even though he had directed other projects before, as an auteur, he considers Something Wild to be his debut. He made it with Orion who was one of the few studios to give creative freedom in that period.
His comments on casting were particularly interesting. He had Melanie Griffith in mind because of Body Double and Night Moves. His first choice for Charlie was Kevin Kline, and then someone recommended Jeff Daniels after his performance in The Purple Rose of Cairo. The extreme “nice guy” element was not as highlighted in the script. Jeff brought a lot of that. Ray Liotta had not acted in a film before and was recommended by a troupe performer. Demme was “scared” of Ray during the audition, and found him to be the perfect fit for his character. He wishes he could take credit, but pretty much everything in the movie was all Ray. I will hand it to him that the casting was the strongest aspect of the movie, and Ray Liotta gave the best performance.
He talks a lot about the soundtrack, including The Feelies (who he loves, proving again is eclectic and good taste in music). They did a lot of big covers, like David Bowie’s Fame, which would be expensive today, but not back then. He used the music to match the tone, with the fun, outrageous poppy stuff in the beginning with Charlie and Lulu, and darker music during the Ray sequences. The finale reverts back to the lighter fare.
E Max Frye Interview – Frye was the screenwriter and this was first studio film. The idea came from him just seeing someone looking wild with piercings sitting at a bar, who later meets someone with a suitcase. He lived in the East Village where there was a lot of graffiti art, colors, and that helped with the template. Spoiler alert: it looks a lot different now. He was going for contrast between a hipster girl, businessman, and criminal.
He had re-written the ending a number of times and didn’t find much that worked. That’s understandable as that is one of the weaker areas of the film.
Criterion Rating: 5/10