Hollywood can treat its biggest talents in strange ways. When Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard appeared in 1980, he suddenly looked like the hottest young filmmaker around, and with good reason. That screwball film, which copped the National Society of Film Critics award, had everything: humor, heart, hipness, tenderness.
Since 1980, however, Demme has had a peculiar time of it. He was a good choice to direct Swing Shift, an originally ambitious Goldie Hawn movie, but he clashed with the star and finally lost control of the movie. Then he made the Talking Heads’ scorching concert film, Stop Making Sense, and turned it into the best music film in recent memory. Still, it was an oddball project, and one wondered when Demme would get back to his bread and butter.
He’s cooking again, and Something Wild is his latest concoction. In it, Demme takes an absolutely familiar story and makes something fresh and funky out of it.
The script, by first-timer E. Max Frye, uses the classic situation of the straight-laced guy changed for the better by a wild encounter with a kooky girl. This situation has been a fruitful one in films since the first time Katharine Hepburn dazzled Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby; this variant is decidedly modern, with some new rules, and also some unprecedented seriousness.
This one begins with an up-and-coming tax consultant (Jeff Daniels) casually walking out of a small New York deli without paying his check. He’s been spotted by a young woman (Melanie Griffith) who’s made up to look like silent star Louise Brooks—in fact, she calls herself Lulu, the Brooks character who lured men to their deaths in Pandora’s Box.
Lulu identifies the man, Charles, as a “closet rebel,” a basically good guy who has almost been lost to yuppiedom. She takes him on a nutty ride through a memorably lost weekend that brings out his free-spirit streak.
The first hour of this ride is a wonderfully funny trip, from a motel in New Jersey to Lulu’s mother’s house in Pennsylvania, where she introduces Charles as her new husband. He goes along with it all, because the mysterious Lulu (not her real name, naturally) is so utterly bewitching, and because he’s feeling the thrill of irresponsibility.
Nobody captures this sort of thing better than Demme: the romance of the road, the crazy tourist shops, the fabulous décor of motel rooms.
Then, when the couple drop in at her high-school reunion, they meet a strange, violent man (Ray Liotta, a former soap-opera actor in a striking film debut) from her past. The film veers into some surprisingly serious business, as this dark figure seems intent on reclaiming his old flame.
Some of this is jarring, and it’s certainly startling; but Demme does as well as anyone could with making some of the unevenness fit.
One of the delightful things about the film, and there are many, is the sight of two good actors really breaking through. Griffith, the daughter of Tippi Hedren, has been stalled in sexy nymphet roles (Body Double), but this opens up something new for her. She’ll never quite manage normal roles, I guess, but she certainly fills out her niche here.
Daniels is terrific; he’s the dubious fellow from Terms of Endearment and The Purple Rose of Cairo. Never have his comically flat voice and improbably straight jaw been used to better effect. His absurd habit of referring to waitresses and garage mechanics by the names on their nametags becomes a goofy, friendly, silly catalog of his outlook on life. It’s a lot like the film’s outlook, which is why Something Wild is so much fun to be around.
First published in the Herald, November 1986
I like the movie. Did Melanie Griffith go normal? I suppose so. But here, she filled her niche, so there.