Sunday, March 27, 2011

Something Wild (1986)

Girls of the World Ain't Nuttin' But Trouble

directed by Jonathan Demme
starring Jeff Daniels, Melanie Griffith,
Ray Liotta

"You're a great girl. You've got a few problems but you're a great girl."

Any guy who says he's never done a Wile E. Coyote over the cliff in pursuit of a girl like Audrey is either lying or packing more fudge than a scoop of Rocky Road. Something Wild is the straight male experience encapsulated: it's what happens when the Girl of Your Dreams appears out of nowhere to grab you by the balls and bust you out of that straitjacket you call your normal self. One hit of the funky stuff and, before you know it, you're soaring through clouds, giggling like a schoolgirl who just got diddled by the hot new guidance counselor as you're looking down, watching your attention-less existence get tinier and tinier.

That's what Jonathan Demme captures perfectly in this light comic wheelie around the outskirts of Femme Fatale City. All it takes is one half-assed display of rebellion — skipping out on his lunch check — for Charlie (Jeff Daniels) to get picked up by Melanie Griffith's kitten-voiced wet dream Audrey. She practically kidnaps him from his day job and, as she's tossing the baggage of his white-collar life out the window of her car with a bottle of Seven Crown glued to her lips, you're wondering along with Charlie: just how far is her attention-whore-passing-as-free-spirit thing gonna go? Well, first, she sharpens Charlie's skills in the art of lying — how to bullshit one's boss while handcuffed to a motel bed, how to escape an Italian restaurant with an angry cook at your heels. Then, she tosses her new pupil into the deep end: she takes him home to Mom and passes him off as her husband.

And that's where Audrey finally emerges from under that black vixen wig. Turns out she's neither nut nor Barbara Stanwyck, but a good-hearted blonde who's made her share of fuck-ups and spent life with her legs wrapped around the wrong guys. Of course, as real life often has it, her journey of reinvention isn't complete without dragging some hapless men through the mud for fun. (So a few proprietors get stiffed along the way; so Charlie endures potential arrests and a near-beatdown — big whoop!) At least in Hollywood's version, it leads to his own personal discovery as well.

Besides, Demme pulls off a neat little hat trick. That breezy '80s comedy formula that lulled you into a sense of security — horndog impetuousness as a means of injecting life into the wrinkly gray hide of Reagan's America? (Complete with hip, lovable blacks as window dressing?) Well, it skids hard into a brick wall about halfway through. And that brick wall is Ray (Ray Liotta), a steely-eyed psycho who just happens to be Audrey's real husband, heretofore unmentioned. Hubby's a stick-up man fresh out of the can, determined like hell to get his wife back — as determined, in fact, to shed the skin of his last few years spent rotting in the pen as Audrey and Charlie are to be reborn. (In liberal Demme's view of America, everybody in mainstream — read: white — society wants to escape their pasts.)

Demme seizes the occasion of Charlie and Audrey's visit to her high school reunion to bring the past vs. present theme right to the surface. ("Spirit of '76 Revisited," indeed.) And his blend of the comedic surface with the gradual blossoming of those darker, more desperate undercurrents is so skillful, in fact, that — like Charlie himself — you don't see what's coming until it's right upon you. Ray Liotta couldn't have been better suited to the embodiment of said undercurrents if he'd been born Dennis Hopper. He clashes with all that joyous-lovebird spontaneity around him — he's all calculated eyeballing and practiced charm; far too smooth in his movements, his physicality. Clearly, the mental rehearsals for the re-wooing of his wife have gone into overtime. And we don't doubt for a second any of the sinister shit that Ray's used-car-salesman smile keeps hinting at. The key, though, is that Ray's as true-blue as Charlie is. Like Hopper's Frank Booth pining for Dorothy in David Lynch's Blue Velvet, this is true love — true love the only way a violent sociopath knows how to express it. It's that same helpless floating feeling that Charlie's just begun to experience, except Ray first felt it long before and he hasn't crashed back to earth yet. Doesn't Charlie know that Audrey probably gives most men the willingness to "do whatever it takes"? Does he really think he's the only one, that he's special?

Turns out: Ray the Ex-Con would quite literally kill for the Norman Rockwell married life that Square Charlie — the movie's true Unconventional Soul — could do perfectly well without. That's no screenwriter's cute idea of irony, that's Demme extending his clear-eyed humanity to all the characters, not merely the ones with whom we're "supposed" to identify. He's no less an auteur with this, a "mere '80s comedy," than he was at the helm of Silence of the Lambs or Philadelphia, and his touch is there with every stroke, every nuance. The catty glances Audrey exchanges with the pregnant wife of an old classmate at the reunion? Pure Jonathan Demme. The absolute cupcake of a blonde teen stuck behind her gift-shop cash register — a future Audrey creaming her panties over Ray, hilariously desperate for a journey of her own? Pure Jonathan Demme. The way the framing suggests that Charlie's left arm has been "cut off" as Audrey seems to be sailing out of his life for one brief, miserable instant? Audrey fluttering off like a fart in the wind and sending Charlie into a Vertigo tailspin, chasing after "Lulu" lookalikes in the street? That priceless look of realization on Ray's face? Demme, all the way. 

Something Wild remains an exemplar of the great cinematic theme of the Ronnie Raygun years: the previously untested values of Clean-Cut Preppie America coming face to face with the Evil Empire lurking right in our own backyards. (Drug-sniffing perverts in Blue Velvet, Fright Night's charming next-door vampire in the middle of suburbia, vigilante mobs and all-around art-community weirdos in Martin Scorsese's After Hours.) But where After Hours and Blue Velvet represented a return (of sorts) to the status quo, Something Wild at least has Charlie declining to put those white-collar handcuffs back on, after all is said and done.

And take it from a former corporate drone: young, firm-breasted Melanie Griffith or no young, firm-breasted Melanie Griffith — that stands as its own romantic triumph.

©2011 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic


Dusty McGowan said...

This is so bizarre. I just got down writing a review of Something Wild for my site...then I found yours! Yours is better.

You really caught the essence of this movie. It's about the past coming to bite you in the ass. That's the serious undertone, and the reason for the abrupt change in tone.

Love your site, man. Great style of writing...lots of fun.

Scott Is NOT A Professional said...

Much appreciated.

It's about the past coming to bite you in the ass.

Absolutely. Or as a character in Magnolia would remind you again and again (and again), you may be through with the past but the past ain't through with you!

The funny thing is I've recently felt the same way about my blog that you've felt about yours: namely, am I just being a big cinematic grouch, tearing into films that I deem unworthy simply because it's easier to rag on something than it is to rave about something you love? I do plan to post more of the "yay! thumbs up!" variety.

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