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A couple of years before the Heaven's Gate debacle precipitated a corporate melt-down at United Artists, three UA executives broke free to form Orion Pictures, a distribution-financing entity that released a steady flow of interesting and popular films. After starting out with Roger Corman, director Jonathan Demme made his mark with the quirky and endearing comedy Melvin and Howard, and hit his career peak at Orion with the amusing Married to the Mob and his Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs. 1986's Something Wild is a partial road picture about a straight-laced banking executive sidetracked by an alluring young woman who calls herself Lulu. Demme says that he fell in love with the utter unpredictability of E. Max Frye's original screenplay: every single incident and character turn comes as a complete surprise. Something Wild begins as an updated screwball comedy but changes its tone as its characters reveal their true selves. Director Demme shows his passion for unusual, alternative music choices by placing David Byrne's appropriately eccentric song Loco de Amor behind the main titles: "Like a pizza in the rain / no one wants to take you home".
The provocative Lulu (Melanie Griffith) picks up divorced young banker Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels) in a New York diner and half-seduces, half-kidnaps him into an erotic weekend adventure. After a reckless stop at a New Jersey motel, Lulu drives Charles across several states to her hometown. There he learns that her real name is Audrey Hankel, and that the exotic "Lulu" is a veneer hiding the personal problems of a small-town girl. Outfitted in new clothes, Charles accompanies Audrey to her high school reunion, where they meet up with the unusually solicitous Ray Sinclair (Ray Liotta). An impromptu double date takes on an entire new complexion when Ray and Audrey reveal their true relationship ... and that Ray is a convicted felon on a very shaky parole.
Something Wild is a rare 1980s picture where seemingly everything works. Director Demme's key collaborators stayed with him for several pictures, including cameraman Tak Fujimoto, editor Craig McKay and producers Kenneth Utt, John Saxon and Gary Goetzman. The director also maintained close ties with many contemporary musicians, as can be seen in his sensationally good concert film Stop Making Sense. Something Wild is peppered with stealth cameos by name singers and performers of the time. Demme enlists a favorite band, The Feelies, to play at Audrey Hankel's high school reunion.
Demme had already proven his ability to animate interesting characters and keep an audience on its toes. The weekend lovers of Something Wild shift identities at least three times as the story changes direction. Audrey's seductive Lulu has adopted the name and hairstyle of silent actress Louise Brooks, making her reversion to her original, "hometown" persona a major surprise for Charlie Driggs. Charlie is much more than a New York square learning to loosen up under Lulu's influence. Beginning as the patsy in an erotic farce, he proves himself eager to adapt to Lulu/Audrey's sense of passion and freedom. Charlie volunteers to take Audrey to her high school reunion, that ritual where former classmates compare one another's chosen "adult" identities. Something Wild's reunion promises an optimistic future for Audrey, if she can escape the mistakes of her past. The scene provides an interesting contrast with the bittersweet school reunion in Francis Coppola's nostalgic fantasy Peggy Sue Got Married, made the same year.
The film's most memorable jolt occurs when Ray Sinclair reveals himself to be a dangerous criminal with an unwelcome claim on Audrey. We immediately realize why Audrey took off for a new life in New York. Cuffed about and ditched by the roadside, the comparatively defenseless Charlie rises to the occasion. In a tense face-to-face confrontation he outsmarts the borderline-psychotic Ray... temporarily. What began as a carefree sex romp has somehow morphed into a violent, brutal thriller. As Charlie fights for his life, we share his panic: "How did I get here?"
Demme's casting acumen couldn't be bettered. Melanie Griffith began as a teenager in edgy roles in The Harrad Experiment and Arthur Penn's moody Night Moves, and had recently played in Brian De Palma's erotic thriller Body Double. Jeff Daniels' Charlie is a safe-playing business cog overly concerned with maintaining appearances. We share Charlie's delight as he lets himself go at the dance and plays the open-minded nice guy with the initially charming Ray. Even more importantly, Charlie becomes a worthy nerd-hero when it comes time to win back the girl of his dreams. He sticks his neck way out for Audrey, taking risks and trusting in his own ability to out-think the menacing Ray.
Ray Liotta is the film's big surprise. Jonathan Demme knew he had found the right actor at the walk-on audition, when Liotta projected a genuinely intimidating aura of danger. The actor intimidates the audience as well. His Ray Sinclair is a serious sexual threat, whose aggressive smile and insistent jokes mask a deep inner rage. Audrey and Charlie have been play-acting dangerous games, but Ray really means business; the dynamics of this wild threesome generate a powerful spell. The impressive Liotta would find an even better showcase for his combination of charm and malice in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas.
Something Wild balances its heavy drama with a time-capsule snapshot of America in 1986. Roadside establishments yield scores of interesting and often helpful characters, from a suspicious motorcycle cop (John Sayles) to a sleazy used car salesman (John Waters). Charles and Lulu give a ride to a diverse group of hitchhikers. Charlie Driggs receives midnight advice from a philosophical man he bumps into at a motel (Jim Roche, an art teacher found on location). A giggly teenaged girl inadvertently helps Ray Sinclair out of a tight spot with the police. Everybody gets their say -- motel clerks, convenience store cashiers, even a pair of opinionated old ladies in a used clothing store.
Director Demme's lively music choices are also worthy of note. An overlay of upbeat "world music" cues accents Lulu's exotic allure. Composers Laurie Anderson and John Cale contribute one conventional soundtrack cue each, and various alternative rock songs cover the rest of the picture. The title theme is carried by the old '60s standby Wild Thing, both as audio sourced from a car radio and as a cute musical finale for the film's trippy credit roll, sung and danced by 'Sister' Carol East. Something Wild lives up to its promise: the adventures of its failed yuppie and unstable adventuress are original, unpredictable and wildly attractive.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Something Wild features a bright and colorful widescreen HD transfer supervised by Tak Fujimoto and approved by the director. The stereophonic audio track brings out every nuance of the film's detailed mix, including odd music cues buried in the background ambience.
Disc producer Curtis Tsui's excellent making-of featurette is built around a candid interview with Jonathan Demme. The director's enthusiastic explanation of the circumstances that led to Something Wild includes his previous disaster with the studio-controlled Swing Shift. Demme expresses his avid interest in musicians, actors and other creative people, and points out how some local non-pro actors were given mid-shoot promotions to larger roles. In addition to the abovementioned Jim Roche, two of the dancing extras for the reunion scene were so good that they inspired an uninhibited dance moment for Charlie Driggs.
Screenwriter E. Max Frye is also made the subject of a new interview, and an original trailer is included. Critic David Thompson contributes an essay to the disc's fat insert booklet.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Something Wild Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.