For seven decades of romantic screwball comedies, sexy, smart, funny women have been waking up heroes who, through fear or shyness or a stuffy educational background, were denying their deepest impulses. The women perform a rescue mission. Sometimes, in earlier eras, they did it in the guise of dumb blondes (like Marie Wilson) or dizzy dames (like Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby), but mostly they were wisecracking broads, like Mae West and Joan Blondell, and Jean Harlow in Red Dust and China Seas, or they were kooks, like Shirley MacLaine, and Barbra Streisand in The Owl and the Pussycat. The theme of the repressed man being “brought out”—liberated—by the sexy woman is the male fantasy-equivalent of the theme of women’s gothic romances, except that it’s played for comedy, and that makes a big difference. (For one thing, it spares men’s self-esteem: they aren’t seen as yearning to be ravished.) Still, it has been worked up in so many movies that it’s a familiar genre, and this may limit a viewer’s initial interest in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild. But once you get past the disappointment of “Oh, it’s a genre picture” (which can mean predictable and tame) you’re likely to be struck by how authentically wild it is. The weekend spree that Lulu (Melanie Griffith, the porno star of Body Double) and Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels, the pith-helmeted explorer of The Purple Rose of Cairo) go on together takes the fantasy very far. This comedy isn’t just about a carefree wacko-rebel heroine and a pompous man; it’s about crossing over—about getting high on anarchic, larcenous behavior and then being confronted with ruthless, sadistic criminality. Something Wild is really screwball: it breaks conventions and turns into a scary slapstick thriller.

Charlie Driggs, who has just been made vice-president of a Wall Street firm, is gray-suited Yuppiedom incarnate. Lulu, who is done up as a bohemian vamp, in a dark, Louise Brooks haircut, a black dress, and bangles, pounces on him after she sees him pocket his check at a Manhattan luncheonette and stroll to the sidewalk. He gets a sneaky pleasure out of stiffing the restaurant: he’s her man. Talking fast, she lectures him about the theft, scares him and teases him, then offers him a ride back to his office and heads in a different direction. When his beeper sounds, she throws it out of the car and tells him to take the afternoon off. Happy and hopped up, she goes into a liquor store, buys four pints of hard stuff, and, while the clerk climbs to the top shelf to get a bottle of Glenlivet for her, casually cleans out the register. Soon Lulu at the wheel and Charlie next to her are swigging down their booze, the music is on triumphantly loud, and before he quite knows what’s going on he’s in a motel in New Jersey, she has thrown him onto the bed, and he’s manacled and chained, with her writhing in S&M gear on top of him. She’s like a freakier young Shirley MacLaine; we don’t know how far she’ll go. But by the time she tells him that he can return to the city by bus—that she’s going on to Pennsylvania—we know that he is never going back to his Yuppie life. That’s about the first ten minutes, and I won’t discuss the plot beyond that point because part of the fun of the movie is in the surprises it springs. The script—a first by a former N.Y.U. film student, E. Max Frye—is like the working out of a young man’s fantasy of the pleasure and punishments of shucking off middle-class behavior patterns.

Melanie Griffith’s dark Lulu turns into blond, fresh-faced Audrey, who suggests Kim Novak and, a bit later, Ginger Rogers, but Griffith’s tarty, funky humor is hers alone. She has the damnedest voice; it sounds frazzled and banal—a basic mid-American-girl voice—but she gets infinite variations into its flatness. She can make it lyrically flat. That voice keeps you purring with contentment. It can be as blandly American as Jean Seberg’s voice was when she spoke French, and Griffith has a bland American prettiness, too. But her delicate head is perched on an intimidatingly strong neck, and she never seems innocent. (Has anybody ever looked better in smeared lipstick?) Her role ranges from confident kook to girl with misgivings to terrified woman, and I thought her amazingly believable—even in the first section, when that dark hair looks as if it could stand up without her. Jeff Daniels’ performance isn’t as much of a showpiece, but he brings off difficult, almost imperceptible transitions. Charlie begins as a fearful, skunky guy and then is so excited and keyed up and soused that he doesn’t take in the warning signals that Audrey sends him; by the time he’s in real trouble he’s too exhausted to function. Daniels is playing the kind of square that we in the audience are eager to laugh at and dissociate ourselves from. Later, he has to let us understand what was inside Charlie’s self-protectiveness—what an unhappy, pathetic fellow he was. And he has to do it without its ever being made explicit—without his ever asking for sympathy. (The middle-class Charlie becomes a real hero: he isn’t just liberated—he’s also tested.) In a third major role, Ray Liotta makes an impressive film debut as Audrey’s dangerous old flame Ray, who she thought was safely tucked away in prison. Demme directs the dark and handsome Liotta so that he’s threatening yet you can see how appealing he could have been to her. Ray isn’t just a villain. He still has the dimply charm of a delinquent who can smile and get by with a lot. He still loves Audrey, and, having lost her, he thinks he was robbed. There are suggestions of underclass anger in his menace; attempting to reclaim her, he feels righteous, justified. But even when you’re frightened of Ray you don’t hate him; you hate his streak of ruthlessness. Max Frye’s script provides the characters with some nifty spins, such as the moment, just after Charlie has met Ray, when Ray compulsively asks a leering, needling question about Audrey’s sexuality. Offended, Charlie reproves this psychopath for not behaving like a gentleman. And the psycho backs off.

Something Wild is really screwball: it breaks conventions and turns into a scary slapstick thriller.

Demme has a true gift for informality. It shows in the simple efficiency with which he presents these three; it shows even more in the offhandedness with which he fits in dozens of subsidiary characters. And, working with the cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (it’s their sixth outing together), Demme somehow enables each of the small characters to emerge as a comic presence. I can’t think of any other director who is so instinctively and democratically interested in everybody he shows you. Each time a new face appears, it’s looked at with such absorption and delight that you almost think the movie will flit off and tell this person’s story. And, though Demme doesn’t flit off, his best movies are many people’s stories. Some of the people here have sizable roles, like Dana Preu, as Peaches, Audrey’s affable, pleasant-faced mother, who lives in a comfy little house in Pennsylvania and plays the spinet. Peaches has a remarkable, weirdly calm scene in her kitchen with Charlie, whom Audrey has introduced as her husband; the mother makes it clear that she isn’t taken in—that she knows it’s one of Audrey’s games. As Dana Preu plays her, Peaches is a gloriously bland cartoon mother of us all, who is such a fount of love that she acquiesces in every folly we can dream up. Margaret Colin is striking as bitchy Irene, so envious of Audrey that she propositions Charlie. And one character in this Pennsylvania town has a shock effect on the audience: when Jack Gilpin’s Larry appears and recognizes Charlie—he works in the New York firm that Charlie has risen in—it’s a collision of worlds. Larry and his dour pregnant wife, Peggy (Su Tissue), who went to high school with Audrey, are a harmless enough pair; they’re cartoons of a more limited nature than Peaches. (Larry is a little turned on when he sees Charlie with hot-tootsie Audrey—he thinks she could be one of the rewards of a vice-presidency.) But this surprise meeting is like something that happens in a bad dream, and we recognize how far we’ve got into Charlie’s fantasy. Larry doesn’t destroy it, though; it doesn’t collapse until Charlie is in Ray’s run-down motel cabin and he hears the ugliness of Ray’s tone as he yells at somebody next door, and bangs and stomps on the wall. (Charlie’s liberation begins with the kook; it isn’t completed until he clashes with the psycho.)

Demme’s spirit shines through most clearly in the bit parts, which are filled by people from his earlier films (such as Charles Napier, who turns up here as an enraged chef), friends and relatives, his production staff (his co-producer, Kenneth Utt, appears as Dad), other filmmakers (John Sayles as a motorcycle cop, John Waters as a used-car dealer), assorted actors (such as Tracey Walter, climbing up for the Glenlivet), and singers, rappers, musicians—lots of them, many black or Hispanic. The bit players are always there, in service stations and convenience stores and wherever people gather; they’re in the background or at the side of the screen, providing a counterpoint to the main action. It’s as if Demme were saying, “Sure, it’s a genre picture, but there’s all this life going on around Lulu and Charlie. They’re part of something. So is Ray.” And as Lulu and Charlie—with rock and reggae booming out—drive from New York to New Jersey and on to Pennsylvania and Virginia, and then head back, you get a feeling of being part of the pop life of the country, and of loving it. You don’t forget that Yuppie boredom with bounty coexists with deprivation and with underclass rage at being deprived of booty—how can you, with Ray at your heels? But the movie gives you the feeling you sometimes get when you’re driving across the country listening to a terrific new tape, and out in nowhere you pull in to a truck stop and the jukebox is playing the same song. Demme is in harmony with that America and its mixture of cultures.

Something Wild is a road movie, and car music is primal American pop. How else could we live through the distances we travel?

Starting with David Byrne and Celia Cruz singing Byrne’s “Loco De Amor” during the opening credits, and ending with a reprise of Chip Taylor’s “Wild Thing” by the reggae singer Sister Carol East, who appears on half of the screen while the final credits roll on the other half, the movie has almost fifty songs (or parts of songs)—several of them performed onscreen by The Feelies. The score was put together by John Cale (who did the track of Demme’s first picture, Caged Heat, in 1974, for Roger Corman); Laurie Anderson worked on this score, too, and it has a life of its own that gives the movie a buzzing vitality. Some years back, and long before Demme made Stop Making Sense or his videos, he said, in an interview in the now defunct Soho News, that “music was my first love; movies came second.” He brings them together here in a lighthearted way. It’s a little reminiscent of the use of music in Easy Rider, but it’s more of a rap. The singing voices keep talking back to us in the way that they often do from car radios and tape decks, or at noisy parties. I like the doubling up of the energy sources; it turns the film into a satirical joyride. Something Wild is a road movie, and car music is primal American pop. How else could we live through the distances we travel? Shallow entertainment helps keep us sane. This kind of music is, in its way, the equivalent of the genre movies that are often just what we want and all we want.

Something Wild is rough-edged. It doesn’t have the grace of Demme’s Citizens Band and Melvin and Howard or the heightened simplicity of his Stop Making Sense. It has something else, though—a freedom that takes off from the genre framework. And Demme has used it to weave the stylization of rock videos into the fabric of Something Wild. Probably no other director could have performed this feat so spontaneously or unself-consciously; the doubling up works integrally for him—it fulfills impulses that were there in Demme right from the start of his career. And he’s made something new: a party movie with both a dark and a light side.

[Head on over to The Criterion Collection for more]

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