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.
The Criterion Collection have shackled down Something Wild as Spine #563 in their catalogue, once again reinvigorating their willingness to incorporate offbeat '80s fare. It comes with minimal art design that fittingly features a pair of handcuffs locked around a heart, both on the front cover and in the inner Booklet. Speaking of said Booklet, it once again includes DVD production credits, a description of the scanning/mastering process used by the company, and one essay: "Wild Things", by David Thompson.
Video and Audio:
Though shown theatrically in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Something Wild arrives in a 1.78:1-framed 1080p AVC encode that -- as stated on the packaging and in the booklet -- comes under supervision from cinematographer Tak Fujimoto and received a stamp of approval from Jonathan Demme himself. Scanned on the company's standard Spirit Datacine method from a 35mm interpositive taken from the original camera negative, the transfer both breathes a lot of life into the vibrant photography and pushes the limit of the film stock used in the mid-'80s shooting time. Heavy yet natural grain drapes atop the film, which becomes highly noticeably against exterior background shots and a few dimly-lit sequences, while the print itself carries few if any dust and/or speckles (I personally didn't spot a single one). To say the very least, the cleanliness, aspect ratio, and overall film-like appearance will be enough for eager fans of the film to pounce on this disc immediately.
The transfer sports a really impressive exhibition of skin tones, capturing the flush against Jeff Daniels' neck in one scene and the somewhat pale expression on Melanie Griffith's in another, while also keeping a razor-sharp eye on Lulu's colorful jewelry, blasts of '80s neon palette choices, and the darker arrangement of moody reds and oranges in the couple's hotel room. Contrast levels really couldn't have been handled better here, revealing minute details in Lulu's wig even during darker scenes while keeping a close eye on brightness during exterior shots. Equally as impressive, the motion that the disc captures when Charlie and Lulu drive in the convertible impresses with its capacity to keep pixels in-place and moving fluidly, all without revealing a hint of enhancement against contours that interact with the background. There's an inherent softness with the print that's unavoidable and, sure, the grain could be seen as a tad heavy here and there, but Something Wild looks pretty freakin' astounding.
As one might expect from an off-beat, lower-budget '80s comedy, the sound design only arrives in a 2-channel DTS HD Master Audio track, which Criterion has stricken and de-hissed on AudioCube from the 35mm magnetic strip. The sound treatment still shows a bit of age, falling a little flat with some dialogue/effects and staying somewhat holstered around the mid-tone range, yet the clarity and lack of noticeable distortion can be quite pleasing. The music, however, mostly sounds smashing through the sound design, while the entirety of the high-school reunion sequence makes certain to focus on the right elements, such as Daniels' conversation with Margaret Colin remaining audible yet properly muffled underneath the music. It's not quite up to the same speed as the visual transfer, but everything's in place and quite fitting. As per Criterion's usual mode of operations, only optional English subtitles accompany the film's sole language track; however, the viewer must manually activate the subs if desired, since there isn't a menu option to toggle the audio/subtitle specs.
The only real downside to Criterion's presentation of Something Wild comes in the atypical low number of supplements, relegated to two interviews and a Trailer (2:28, HD AVC). However, the two interviews includes are extremely good, offering expository and enlightening stretches of material on this '80s semi-cultish gem.
Jonathan Demme (33:16, HD AVC) offers a candid, blunt yet cheerful interview where he discusses the studio mangling of his picture Swing Shift, where he uses words like "debacle", "destroyed", and "never want to direct again" as he leads into the conception of the Something Wild script underneath the Orion production banner. Demme views Something Wild as returning to his base instincts as a director, a project that rejuvenated his aspirations, while discussing visual tones, the shifting neon-to-Americana production design, and his actors -- including his unpretentious pride in directing Ray Liotta's first picture.
E. May Frye (9:19, HD AVC) discusses his inspiration for the script and the Charlie-Lulu combination, where he discusses the art burrowed within, the story's roots as a short, and Fry's assurance that Demme was right for the film based on his exposure to Stop Making Sense and Melvin and Howard. He also talks about discovering Melanie Griffith from Body Double and the faint silent-era look he had in mind for Lulu's look. He also dips into the dark tonality of the film's second half, including how he tried to rewrite the ending "lighter" several times to no avail and how they ultimately tempered the ending just a bit.
Jonathan Demme's multi-hued comedy Something Wild stays true to its title as it locates the wilder sides of its characters, filling the story of a straight-laced accountant and a capricious lush of a woman with a heap of thrills -- both invigorating and suspenseful -- and glimmers of sincerity. The tonal shifts can be jarring, especially the momentous pivot that occurs when Ray Liotta wedges in between the two main characters, but the rhythm moves quickly and amusingly enough towards the darker side of the story that it never loses its infectious, grin-inducing energy. Criterion's disc looks and sounds outstanding, though the inclusion of only two interviews and a trailer leaves something to be desired in the supplemental department. Fans will want to snatch up this disc immediately for its audiovisual muscle-flexing, while this comedic breath of fresh air earns a very firm Recommendation through this high-quality offering from the boutique label.