In the mythic journey that has become the default storytelling model in Hollywood today, the hero must "cross the threshold" from his familiar world into a new and potentially dangerous one. Usually the first act or at least a good chunk of it sets up the circumstances that lead our hero to his decision. "Something Wild" (1986), however, wastes no time. In the opening scene, conservatively dressed businessman Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels) finishes lunch at a Manhattan deli, tucks his check into his pocket, and skips out on the meal. For the newly minted vice-president of a tax firm, this act of petty larceny is truly "something wild." He has no idea.
A fellow diner chases him down and confronts him. Lulu (Melanie Griffith) is ready to call the cops and Charlie is ready to break down in tears and beg for clemency – he will never rebel again! But Lulu (also the name of the best known character played by silent film sexpot Louise Brooks whose raven-hued bobbed hairdo Griffith copies) has other plans, and soon Charlie finds himself being driven crazy, or at least being driven by a crazy woman to parts unknown. And some parts they are. It's not too long before Lulu-Griffith is topless and Charlie-Daniels (er, you know who I mean) is chained to a bed, forced by his new dominatrix to call work and his wife to say he's going to be away for a little while. Trickster goddess Lulu is determined to set straight-laced Charlie free even if it means tying him up in a cheap motel.
Less than a half hour into the film, it's fair to ask "Cool. But what else ya got?" Skipping the preliminary material is all well and good, but there's a reason writers withhold their best material. You'd be right to think this comic set up can't get too much quirkier or kinkier, but you'd be completely mistaken to think that writer E. Max Frye has emptied his chamber by the second reel. Frye's spec script was a hot commodity for a good reason; it really is something wild and if you don't already know where it ends up then I assure you that you have no idea where it's going to end up.
I'd prefer not to provide spoilers. Let's just say that the film "mixes genres" and that there's quite a change in tone once Ray Liotta, in his first major film role, shows up to hound ex-wife Lulu and provide Charlie with yet another threshold to cross. Meanwhile, each of our leads has a series of secrets to reveal as we learn that Lulu (AKA Audrey) isn't quite as wild as we might think at first, and Charlie is perhaps a bit wilder (or at least more devious) than the initial set up suggests. Is Lulu rescuing Charlie from a life of pencil-pushing drudgery, or will Charlie be her knight in shining Brooks Brothers armor?
Director Jonathan Demme, fresh off his miserable experience with "Swing Shift" when the studio yanked control from him, was reluctant to step into feature filmmaking again (his 1984 Talking Heads concert doc "Stop making Sense" was, however, a huge critical hit and a personally satisfying project) but the story was an irresistible match for his talents. Demme fills each scene with little details, giving bit characters and otherwise nondescript locations a life of their own. Though "Something Wild" is indisputably centered on its three stars (Liotta's debut is a star-making performance), new characters can take over even the single scenes they are in. The film actually wraps up with a just introduced waitress (rapper Sister Carol) singing a version of "Wild Thing" over the closing credits. Tracey Walter, John Sayles and John Waters each get a chance to shine in cameos that feel like genuine people rather than just a few attention-calling quirks. Demme's keen eye also highlights the vibrancy in the film's ever-shifting rural American landscape as the characters wind south through Pennsylvania and Virginia. Manhattan looks like pretty dull by comparison.
Frye's script isn't a self-conscious genre-mashup, but a custom engine that never runs through the same cycle twice. Lulu keeps tossing Charlie curveballs ("Hi, this is my mom. Mom, this is my husband Charlie.") and big-league Charlie consistently knocks them into the gap. They play off each other, reinventing and embellishing their relationship on the fly (add some kids here, a house in the ‘burbs there) not just for the benefit of curious onlookers but for themselves as well. Perhaps they can they create a real life together out of the lies they spin at Lulu's high school reunion. Didn't Abbas Kiarostami just remake this as "Certified Copy"? And well beyond the character's control is the mean old nasty plot that is resets the game at least a few times to keep them on their toes and to keep the film fresh. Creative destruction isn't just for economics.
Griffith is genuinely sexy as the playful dirty girl of every guy's dreams who becomes something more than just a projected fantasy. Daniels is at ease both in reactive and proactive modes, moving plausibly from "shut up and don't rock the boat ‘cause this crazy chick is hot" to "I'll fight to the death for the woman I love." Liotta is an absolute beast. "Something Wild" was a flop in large part because the studio had no idea how to market it. The somewhat iconic poster (Griffith, decked out in black, licking her lips, Daniels hanging upside down) promises a whacky comedy, but the only truth in the advertising is in the title. There aren't many studio films like it.
The film is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The 1080p transfer is superb, of course. Just take a good look at Melanie Griffiths' outfit. I'm sure you won't mind. She's a jangle of jewelry and random bric-a-brac and you can make out the finest detail in every little decoration. And that red lipstick with the black wig – well, maybe it's not the high-def transfer talking, but damn does that look sharp. Detail level is sharp everywhere – Jeff Daniels actually looks TOO young to be believed here. He never looked like that, did he? Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto works a lot of color and lighting shifts into scenes (esp at the high school reunion) and the 1080 treats them admirably. Outdoor daylight scenes look just as good as indoor ones. This is a top-notch Criterion effort.
The film is presented with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track. Demme's film is, as you would expect, packed with music (from David Byrne to an on-screen performance by The Feelies) and this lossless audio makes them sound sharp and rich. Dialogue is all clearly mixed. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
Criterion hasn't included much. All we get are new interviews with Demme (33 min) and writer Frye (9 min) plus a Trailer. Both interviews are good though, with Demme's being quite detailed about his frustrations with studio interference on "Swing Shift" to his work on "Something Wild" and thoughts about his general style and philosophy.
The 16-page insert booklet includes a new essay by critic David Thompson.
All these years, I never knew. I was a teenager when "Something Wild" came out and I saw the poster, filed it away as a comedy to check out at some point and never came back to it. This Criterion release is the first time I watched the film and, well, it sure as heck wasn't what I expected. It wasn't even what I expected a half hour in as I was scribbling a note: "Template for clichéd American indies to follow w/ quirky free spirited outsiders teaching tightwads how to live free. Ugh." I crossed that note out a half hour later. Crossed the "Ugh" part out twice. "Something Wild" is something exciting, something unique and something worth watching as soon as you get the chance.