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Something Wild (Blu-ray Review)

16 May, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R’
Stars Jeff Daniels, Melanie Griffith, Ray Liotta.

Assuming a certain degree of competence in terms of execution, some movies get a blistering shot out of the gate from their premise alone — E. Max Frye’s original screenplay for one of director Jonathan Demme’s most characteristic achievements easily among them. We’re talking something wild, indeed.

This true original (then and now) presents a straight-arrow business type (just made vp) who is all but abducted out of New York by a femme free spirit wearing a Louise Brooks-type black wig. On the way to small-town Pennsylvania, she handcuffs him to a bed for uninhibited sex in a fifth-rate motel — all as a prelude for a trip home to meet … her mother. Whereupon, the two become each other’s dates at her high-school reunion, where the hired band is played by (how cool can you get?) The Feelies.

Even beyond the bewildered victim’s backstory and the fact that he’s somewhat of a closeted free spirit himself, there’s a lot more to this not-quite-lark. Most prominently, there’s that sharp turn the movie takes toward extremely brutal climactic violence — a no-longer-as-baffling twist that threw 1986 audiences, distributor Orion and, truth to tell, me when I gave Wild a favorable yet lesser review than it deserved for USA Today. Of course, Orion’s memorable poster art did suggest somewhat lighter fare: a looking-cute Melanie Griffith makes a beckoning gesture with her tongue as Jeff Daniels’ goofy-looking head hangs upside down from the top of the frame. It’s something akin to what moviegoers once might have seen hyping an Abbott & Costello comedy — if, say, Bud Abbott had had a cuter tongue.

Instead, Griffith — first calling herself “Lulu” in homage to Brooks’ immortal character in G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box — turns out to have an ex-con husband of almost psychopathic proportions. To almost everyone’s chagrin, he shows up at the prom dance — along with a little armed robbery as a side dish — after we’ve learned that Lulu is really an “Audrey” and a somewhat more normal character than we’ve been led to believe (though we’re talking in relative terms here).

This truly scary dude is nailed, in his big-screen debut, by Ray Liotta — an actor Griffith suggested herself when she saw that Demme and his casting director were totally stumped trying to make an instinctively “right” pick. Liotta’s performance is so dead on that it might have gotten him a supporting Oscar nomination had the movie been a bigger hit — which is, of course, something of a commentary on how bad mainstream movies and moviegoer taste got during parts of the 1980s, when every other release seemed to be some kind of variation on Weird Science. Though he never enjoyed huge commercial success until 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, I would argue that Demme was the director of the era next to Martin Scorsese, thanks to Melvin and Howard, Stop Making Sense, Wild, Swimming to Cambodia, Married to the Mob and Lambs. For that matter, I think 1979’s pre-Melvin Last Embrace is best of all the self-conscious Hitchcock imitations and before that, there was 1977’s Handle with Care (aka Citizen’s Band), which was one of the best-reviewed films of that year.

The Goldie in the ointment was 1984’s Swing Shift, which was taken out of Demme’s hands by the studio, savagely recut and quite possibly ruined — allegedly after some arm pulling by lead Goldie Hawn (whose penchant for congenitally crummy comedies has only been surpassed by daughter Kate Hudson’s). I bring this up only because Demme mentions in the Criterion interview here — without naming names — just how much that experience pained him and how Wild became the project that made him want to resume directing again.

The screenplay by Frye (interviewed as well) is first-rate, but the movie is quintessential Demme. It loves and respects minorities; has dead-on casting instincts down to the smallest roles (including bits by directors John Sayles and John Waters); wallows positively in the byways of America; employs sizzling color schemes; and has a zesty rock soundtrack — among the tops of the decade — that embraces David Byrne, UB40, Oingo Boingo, Fine Young Cannibals and more. And what an end credits sequence: Sister Carol out on the street and bopping against a bright red wall as she delivers "Wild Thing" (which Griffith certainly is in her career role, with the two male co-stars matching her).

This is getting to be a stuck record (can we get The Feelies to perform it?), but Criterion yet again delivers a print that precisely replicates how a movie looked at the time it was born (I saw Something Wild at the New York press screening). In fact, you can use the indoor shot of Griffith’s apartment — or the color upholstery design from her first of many illegally procured cars here — to calibrate your big-screen monitor.

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