Throwing away the boring, oppressive aspects of your life is a theme that has run through movies since their inception. The nature of escapism feeds into that want. But is turning toward the rambunctious side of life always a good thing? Is there ever a clean break from normalcy, and will your past catch up with you?
Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild” tries to answer some of these questions in a surprising, offbeat manner. It follows two people, polar opposites on the surface but harboring some linked secrets underneath, on a road trip that provides hard truths for both of them. This may sound like heady material, but “Something Wild” lives up to its title, playing with genre and tone like newfound toys.
Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels) is a typical, uptight New York businessman; at first glance. Charlie may look like a standard-issue yuppie, but he has some unique traits. In his first scene, we see him ask for a check in a restaurant, and then put the check in his pocket and walk out the door. There’s a quest for danger under the mild-mannered veneer. At this restaurant, he encounters a woman calling herself Lulu (Melanie Griffith). Sporting a haircut that makes her look like a 1930’s gangster moll and decked out in Afro-chic jewelry, she approaches Charlie and offers him a ride back to his office. She knows a lot about Charlie, and his habits for theft in order to get the rush of disobeying the rules. Lulu is a rambunctious type, who wants to unleash Charlie and shake him out of his stupor. She offers him a ride back to his office, but instead takes him to a motel in New Jersey and has a very unusual sexual encounter with Charlie (handcuffs are involved, enough said). Charlie says he is married, but he is entranced by Lulu, and agrees to continue the journey with her.
“Something Wild” sounds like old-hat at this point. How many films have been made, especially over the last decade, that have a disillusioned male protagonist who gets his life changed by an idealized, eccentric female character (a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, if you will)? Way too many, but there are two very interesting things that transform this movie and make it stand out from the rest of its ilk.
Charlie decides to continue this journey with Lulu, who reveals her name to be Audrey; he agrees to attend her high-school reunion and pretend to be her husband. They stop at her mother’s house in Pennsylvania, and Audrey reveals two aspects of her true nature; the black hair was a wig, she is really blonde and she dons normal clothes. When they go to the reunion, there is another curveball thrown Charlie’s way: Audrey’s husband Ray (Ray Liotta in his screen debut) has just been released from prison, and he wants her back, at any cost.
Those are plot and character elements that rarely show up in these kinds of movies. But what makes “Something Wild” so interesting is how easily it morphs and transforms into something new as the characters and situations transform. It is a romantic comedy, a travelogue for small-town America, a drama about internal struggle and identity, a crime thriller and even a darkly comic horror film. It refuses to be pinned down, which makes perfect sense in a film that deals with the unpredictability of life.
It helps that Jonathan Demme, along with the actors, does more than tell a story; the entire universe in which this story takes place is unfolded along with the plot. America can be a strange place with characters and locations so outlandish that they have to be real because they transcend the realm of fiction. Demme’s films all have eclectic soundtracks, and this film is no exception, using several versions of the Troggs’ classic “Wild Thing” and performances from New Wave artists from the time. The atmosphere complements the characters and their performances.
Daniels has been a great actor in so many films, but he always seems to be under the radar, mostly because of the projects he chooses and his acting itself; his specialty is playing low-key, unassuming but interesting characters. Charlie is no exception, and Daniels dodges every cliche that this kind of role can be saddled with. Charlie wants to break free of his existence, spurred on by some secrets regarding his past that led him to build this facade. Audrey, the character and as she is played by Griffith, is the mirror image of Charlie; she is spontaneous and rebellious, but this is also a front, we find out that she wants to return herself to a state of normalcy, and is trying to escape her own past, personified by her ex-husband Ray. This was Liotta’s first film role, and it actually one of his best performances; his appearance electrifies the narrative and is the personification of how rebellion can morph into anarchy and insanity. His eyes and trademark maniacal laugh make Ray a convincing and charismatic psychopath. You can see how someone like Audrey can fall in love with him, even though he is so volatile and dangerous. Just as he would do in “Goodfellas,” Liotta gives a monstrous character an almost seductive pull.
“Something Wild”, even 26 years after its release, is still an outlier of modern movies. It sees all the formula traps that come with road movies, romantic comedies and even thrillers, and avoids all of them. Even in 2012, movies as odd and interesting as “Something Wild” are hard to come by.