Monday, November 07, 2011
Walk on the Wild Side
My, how times change. In 1986, Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild crackled with hip edginess. It was smart, sexy and subversive, a playful jab to family values in the Reagan era. But the passage of years hasn’t been particularly kind to the film, which saw its theatrical release 25 years ago today. While the picture still has its charms, enough to warrant the Criterion treatment earlier this year, nowadays Something Wild comes off as a bit more mild.
For Demme, the experience must have been a blast after the debacle of Swing Shift, a 1984 Goldie Hawn dramedy in which the director had lost control to the studio. Something Wild was an opportunity for the filmmaker — whose impressive oeuvre up to that point included Handle with Care and Melvin and Howard — to get back on track.
The story follows Charlie Driggs, played by Jeff Daniels, a mild-mannered banker in New York whose life is thrown for a loop after a chance encounter with a sexy free spirit named Lulu (Melanie Griffith). She catches him walking out on a bill at a corner restaurant, pegs him as a closet rebel and proceeds to pick him up in near-record time. The uptight Charlie goes along, albeit reluctantly (“I can’t just take the afternoon off! Are you nuts), but Lulu turns out to be more than he bargained for. She swipes money from a liquor store cash register, handcuffs him to a motel room bed for some raucous sex and makes a habit of testing Charlie’s ability to ditch restaurant tabs.
Eventually, she whisks Charlie away to Pennsylvania and she tells her homespun mom (Dana Preu) that they’ve been married for several months. It is there that Lulu dispenses with a brunette wig, takes off the gaudy jewelry and reveals to Charlie that her real name as Audrey Hankel.
Things quickly turn dangerous when the pair goes to Audrey’s 10th high school reunion. They run into the woman’s old flame, a disarmingly charismatic jailbird named Ray Sinclair (Ray Liotta). Audrey clearly is terrified of the guy, but Charlie doesn’t clue in until it’s too late. Ray brutally robs a convenience store, clocks Charlie and all hell breaks loose.
The jarring tonal shift of Something Wild remains its most interesting aspect. Still, Demme’s breezy direction and E. Max Frye’s quirky screenplay do provide considerable charm. The periphery is especially appealing, from a knockout soundtrack — veering from reggae to post-punk — to the film’s comforting conceit that life on the road is populated with open-hearted folks eager to lend a helping hand. Small kindnesses abound here; the picture’s most emotionally resonant moments stem from the random cashier or motel guest who Charlie and Audrey happen across on their journey.
The casting, however, is otherwise a mixed bag. Daniels certainly is likable in the Jack Lemmon Everyman role, and he displays strong comic timing as he unravels amid the force of nature that is Lulu/Audrey. But the audience is asked to suspend a staggering amount of disbelief with Melanie Griffith as that force of nature. She is a shockingly bland seductress here, making it tough to swallow that Charlie would so fully fall under her reckless spell. It almost feels as if Griffith is a placeholder for an actual performance that never quite materialized.
That void is all the more apparent when Liotta blasts onscreen. In his first major film appearance, he lends Ray Sinclair with generous doses of menace of charm — so much so that the movie winds up sagging when he isn’t around.
As a romantic comedy, Something Wild is a pleasant trifle but little more.