Jonathan Demme was one of the brightest spots of filmmaking in the 1980’s. Like early Spielberg, his sensibilities for Americana were funky but authentic. He liked weird people, but not in an ironic or grotesque way. He loves people, and it shows in every bit of his casting. Though the academy would reward him for The Silence of the Lambs, and unintentionally turn him into a serious director for a while, his loosey-goosey charms were never more apparent than in Something Wild, which the Criterion collection has released. It stars Jeff Daniels and Melanie Griffith, and introduced the world to Ray Liotta. Check out our review of the film on Blu-ray after the jump.
Jeff Daniels stars as Charlie Driggs, a guy eating lunch decides to dine and dash. This gets the attention of Lulu (Melanie Griffith), who offers him a lift back to work after shaking him up for catching him. Instead of taking him to work, she takes him to a motel for some frisky sex. He’s nervous about blowing off work after getting a big promotion, and nervous about using his company credit cards, and generally twitchy, but still nice and charming. He’s also keeping a secret from Lulu, who later reveals her real name is Audrey. She’s kidnapped him to go to her ten-year High School reunion, which is where they meet Ray (Ray Liotta). Ray’s with Irene (Margaret Colin), and asks them out for drinks. There her big secret is revealed, and the stakes rise.
Working from E. Max Frye’s script, Demme makes magic – but talking about the plot of the film is unfair for a number of reasons. One of the great pleasures of the film is watching it unfold, and to spoil those twists is just rude. The movie has several great tone shifts throughout as it navigates its narrative, and the pleasure is watching the film go to surprising – though tonally set-up – places. And one of the great pleasures is watching the cast interact with the supporting players. From Demme regulars Charles Naiper and Tracey Walter, to directors like John Sayles and John Waters, to novices like Steve Scales (best known as one of the touring musicians with Talking Heads) to Emma Byrne (David’s Mom), the movie is loaded with people who pop in their scant screen time. When they warm to characters, you can feel it, and that does wonders. You’re invested in their journey, and their odd pairing. The start of the film is a meet cute, and this is a screwball comedy, but one of a singular vision, one that eschews cuteness for quirkiness, but the right kind of quirky
Watching the film again, it’s hard not to note that Melanie Griffith has never been cast so well. She’s hot in this movie, all slinky sex in a Louise Brooks-based bob, and offers the sort of dangerous sex that is inherently appealing, but the babydoll-trouble sheen also plays well into the character’s other side, the wounded bird who needs someone like Charlie to keep her from drowning. But then also Jeff Daniels was an actor to behold in the 1980’s. He’s still a great leading man, but his work here is career-best. He manages to both be that corporate asshole, and show the person beneath. He’s got some rebel in him, but he’s also out of his depth doing anything beyond a simple misdemeanor. And if Demme’s touch is never overhwhelming in terms of the camera placement or anything so obvert, it’s his ability to cast and get these great performances that marked him as a major talent.
It’s nice to see Criterion release this and Blow Out in quick succession. Both Demme and De Palma are – sadly – polarizing artists who should be championed as some of the greatest directors of their times. Something Wild is so small and so contained that it may not come across as a masterpiece on first glance, but that’s what makes it so great.
The Criterion collection Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS-HD 2.0 Stereo surround. Extras consist of an interview with director Jonathan Demme (33 min.) and writer E. Max Frye (9 min.). Demme’s talk is as deep as most commentaries and covers all the terrain you’d want him to single out. Watching the film Jeff Daniels gives one of the finest readings of the line “I’m fucked” ever put to screen and I was happy to see Demme single it out as well. He also covers the great casting, and virtually everything you could want to know about the film. The Frye interview gives Demme a lot of credit, and Frye talks about how they mostly shot what he wrote. And if I haven’t given him enough credit in this review – he deserves it. It’s a great script. The film’s theatrical trailer is also included.