"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Monday, May 9, 2011

DVD of the Week: Something Wild: Criterion Collection

The 1980’s saw the rise of the Baby Boomers as the dominant class in North America. Many of them embraced the materialism of this decade as they settled into comfortable 9 to 5 work routines and raised families in suburbia. However, there were still remnants of the rebellious 1960’s of their youth threatening to surface and that was something a number of films picked up on, including After Hours (1985), Into the Night (1985), Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), and Something Wild (1986). These films feature Boomer protagonists plucked out of their humdrum lives and thrust into foreign, sometimes frightening new surroundings where they encounter strange people while being caught up in thrilling misadventures. Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild was one of the best of this kind, featuring a button-downed Yuppie who takes a walk on the wild side thanks to a wild and impulsive mystery woman.

Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels) is a straight-laced banker whose idea of rebellion is skipping out of a diner without paying for the check. This catches the eye of Lulu (Melanie Griffith), a beautiful woman who sports a Louise Brooks hairdo and is decked out in African-themed Bohemian attire. She playfully confronts him about his act of rebellion and then proceeds to “kidnap” the hapless man under the auspices of showing him a good time. Charlie protests initially but there is something about this strange woman that he finds intriguing. Maybe it’s her exotic nature or her knack for spontaneity. Before he knows it, they’ve rented a motel room in New Jersey and are having sex while he’s handcuffed to the bed.

It’s all an attempt to loosen Charlie up and get him out of his comfort zone. Lulu is a New Wave music femme fatale and he likes the way she makes him feel – both physically and emotionally. So much so, that he ends up going to her hometown in Pennsylvania where she reveals her name to actually be Audrey. We, much like Charlie, are waiting to see what she does next. It’s safe to say that Audrey is not what she appears to be and, for that matter, neither is Charlie as we eventually find out. At her class reunion, they run into her psychotic estranged husband Ray (Ray Liotta), which puts Charlie’s newfound confidence to the test.

Jeff Daniels is quite good as the hopelessly square Charlie. His transformation from boring banker to impulsive free spirit is well done. The actor manages to keep us interested in Charlie and keep us wondering what motivates him to leave his safe existence behind. Something Wild really belongs to Melanie Griffith and her portrayal of a chronic liar who gets her kicks breaking the law. It’s a completely uninhibited performance and one of, if not her signature role. Its success led to her most high profile role to date – Working Girl (1988).

Ray Liotta is the film’s scene-stealer as the unhinged Ray. The actor has that great crazy laugh and a glint in his eyes that suggests he is not someone you want to piss off. You can tell that Liotta is having an absolute blast playing this crazy guy. Astute observers will also spot filmmakers John Sayles and John Waters in amusing cameos as well as veteran character actors Tracey Walter and Charles Napier in small but memorable roles.

There’s an engaging, freewheeling vibe to Something Wild that mirrors the unpredictable Audrey and part of the fun is seeing where Demme takes us next. He does an excellent job of navigating through the film’s wild tonal shifts. Over the course of the film, Charlie first sheds his inhibitions and then systematically his old life for a new one. Like Desperately Seeking Susan, Something Wild is a subversive film in the sense that its protagonist rejects a safe, predictable life for a new one with all kinds of possibilities.

Special Features:

For a Criterion Collection release there is a disappoint number of extras.

There is a 33-minute interview with director Jonathan Demme where he starts off talking about the genesis of Something Wild. After coming off the debacle of making Swing Shift (1984), he was ready to quite the movie business but he read the screenplay for Something Wild and it got him excited about making films again. He talks about the look, the casting and many other aspects of the film in this engaging interview.

Also interviewed is the film’s screenwriter E. Max Frye. He talks about what inspired him to write the script. At the time, he lived in the East Village in New York City and drew from artists there.

Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.



  1. Nice write-up sir! I am very excited for my blu-ray of this film to arrive!

  2. Hi J.D.

    I love your analysis/retrospective of Something Wild, particularly your excavation of the underground 1980s counter-culture movement (consisting of After Hours, Desperately Seeking Susan and Into the Night).

    I think you're right-on about these films involving a widespread yearning for the boomers' youthful days, in the 1960s when everything wasn't so buttoned-down, routine, and yuppified.

    And this film is just one of the reasons (along with De Palma's Body Double) that I'm madly, hoplessly in love with Melanie Griffith. :)

    Excellent article, as always.


  3. Wonderful spotlight on this one J.D. For me, it has one of the all-time unexpected left turns in cinema history -- that moment when Ray comes on screen. The entire tone changes on his arrival. I think it's one of the greatest film debuts (yeah, I know it's not Liotta's first film, but I don't count THE LONELY LADY). Too bad there isn't more extras with this one. Thanks, J.D.

    p.s., I'm with JKM about Melanie, too.

  4. This one reminds me of a similar Baby Boomer's trying to remember their wild days film: Bird on a Wire with Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn, remember that one? Where Goldie Hawn is always fantasizing about the wild times she had with Mel Gibson when they were teenagers? Not the best movie ever, but similar in theme to Something Wild, which I never got around to seeing...need to check it out! I was too much of a kid to see this one when it first came out, I guess its time to catch up.

  5. I always liked the film not because of its quirkiness. Also the music from the opening song by David Byrne and Celia Cruz. Also for the cameo by the Feelies as the reunion band as they played some great stuff.

    I too, am a bit disappointed with the lack of content on the Criterion DVD. I would hope for something more such as cast interviews and maybe a commentary track as I often expect from Criterion. I'll pick it up when it's on sale.

  6. Rupert Pupkin:

    Thank you! Yes, despite the lack of extras, this is quite a fine disc.

    John Kenneth Muir:

    Thank you for the kind words, my friend. I've never been a huge admirer of Melanie Griffith but she is so good in this film. Another one I really like her in is the Larry Clark film she did with James Woods - ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE. She is excellent in that one!


    Yeah, Liotta's intro into the film really changes the whole tone and he breaks a scary intensity to the role that spins the film off in a much darker direction, which I like.

    I was a bit bummed at the small number of extras but Demme's interview is very good. Too bad he didn't do a commentary as well.

    The Film Connoisseur:

    Good call on BIRD ON A WIRE. Wow, I hadn't even thought of that one. I think you'd really dig SOMETHING WILD. It's a funky little film with some fantastic performances by the 3 leads. I'd be curious to see what you think of it.


    Thank you for mentioning Byrne's song over the opening credits. I wanted to say something about that but couldn't find a way to shoehorn it into my review. And yes, the Feelies cameo as the class reunion band was fantastic. I love their look and the songs they played fit it in so well with the oddball vibe of the film.

  7. I remember grabbing a VHS copy of this film from the local video store back in the day and relishing every sexy moment of it. It's such a classic!

    A great pick for your DVD of the Week J.D..

    Honestly, I loved your point about the types of films that were arriving of this nature back in the day. This one is going up on my watch list thanks to you.

    Seriously, what has Jonathan Demme done since Philadelphia and Silence Of The Lambs? I must be missing something but he's been quiet.

    Great highlight here J.D.!

  8. The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    I too remember the VHS of this very well. As for Demme, he seems to have shifted focus to documentaries for last bunch of years but came roaring back to narrative filmmaking with RACHEL GETTING MARRIED which I enjoyed very much. Great to see Debra Winger back in action and I'm glad Demme coaxed her back. And he even got a fantastic performance from Anne Hathaway.