Something Wild (1986): Jonathan Demme’s Dark-Light Screwball Comedy-Thriller, Starring Melanie Griffith

Something Wild can be considered as the third film of Jonathan Demme’s “small-town trilogy,” which began with the 1977 Handle With Care and continued with the 1980 Melvin and Howard, this time around centering on a new screen type in the 1980s: the Yuppie.

Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

Once again, at the center of the narrative is an unlikely pair: Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels), an uptight Wall Street tax-accountant, and Lulu Hankel (Melanie Griffith), a sexy and reckless woman. They meet in a downtown Manhattan luncheonette, when Lulu spots Charlie beating a check. After confronting him outside, Lulu offers Charlie a ride to his office but instead takes him to a sleazy New Jersey motel.

Charlie, a newly-appointed vice-president of a big consultant firm, protests he has meetings to attend, reports to write, and calls to return. Besides, his wife and children are waiting for him in his suburban house. Ignoring his protests, Lulu stops at a liquor store to pick up some Scotch and cleans out the cash register. At the motel, Lulu handcuffs Charlie to the bedpost, rips his clothes, and makes love to him in a manner he has never experienced before.

As characters, Charlie and Lulu could not have been more different, at least initially, before Charlie reveals his hidden secrets and dark spots. Later on, under seemingly divergent uniforms, the two turn out to be kindred souls.

Charlie starts out as an ultra-conservative guy, wearing a starched shirt and a suit, like a 1980s version of Gregory Peck in The Man with the Gray Flannel Suit. Wearing a kinky little black outfit, Lulu dons a Louise Brooks pageboy wig; Lulu is Brooks’s best-known screen role. Lulu’s real name, Audrey, also seems to be drawn from movie lore, perhaps Audrey Hepburn, whose Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s Lulu-Audrey slightly resembles.

In this and other respects, Demme shows how pop culture has become the new, secular religion, permeating every aspect of American life.

After a most surprising beginning, the film changes tone, evolving into a road comedy with increasingly darker mood.  The couple drives from lower Manhattan to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and back to suburban New York.

Lulu takes Charlie to her mother’s small-town home and introduces him as her husband. Then off to a tenth high school reunion, titled “76 Revisited,” a joyful occasion that turns into a nightmare, when Audrey’s former husband, the psychotic Ray Sinclair (Ray Liotta) shows up. The film then changes tone again, now turning into a thriller, with the two men desperately vying to get Audrey. Something Wild shows that crime, violence, and psychosis are no longer the exclusive territory of urban life; rural America has its own share of social ills and problems.

Despite changes in generic formats, which some viewers found disturbing, the predominant offbeat tone in Something Wild is similar to that prevailing in Demme’s other films and in American comedies in general. In parts, Something Wild is a 1980s version of the Depression screwball comedy, It Happened One Night, albeit with a major role reversal. Instead of Clark Gable’s Peter Warne, an aggressive, boozy, sexual, and self-centered newspaperman, there is Audrey, as the unemployed sexual aggressor. And instead of Gable and Claudette Colbert traveling from the country to the city (from Florida to New York), Charlie and Lulu drive from the city to the country.

The narrative of Something Wild also shares themes with Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). Like other “Yuppie Angst” movies (Desperately Seeking Susan and Lost in America, both 1985; Into the Night, 1986), Something Wild suggests that appearances are deceptive, that nothing is what it appears to be and no one should be trusted for who they say they are.

Charlie and Lulu, initially posited as opposite characters, turn out to be similar. After Hours and Something Wild are pictures that complement each other in some respects. If Scorsese’s film is about one nightmarish experience in New York’ s Soho, Demme’s is its rural counterpart. Moreover, in both films, the hero is a square, a successful professional who an upright and uptight ass. However, unlike After Hours, wherein the hero goes back to “normal life” at the end of his ordeal, Charlie undergoes a radical transformation, and his future is in doubt.

“I’m a rebel,” says Charlie, “I just channeled my rebellion into the mainstream.” By this time, however, Lulu’s transformation has gone into the opposite direction, and she begins to show signs of domesticity. “What are you gonna do now that you’ve seen how the other one lives–the other half of you” In this sentence, the film’s message of human nature’s duality shows strong resemblance to that of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, not to mention the similarity in the protagonists’ names. In Hitchcock’s 1943 picture, we have Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) and his niece, Young Charlie (Teresa Wright).

One element in Something Wild that went unnoticed by most critics is its depiction of multi-racial America. The three protagonists are all white, but the background is heavily populated by blacks: Baptist Church members, musicians, waiters, gas attendants, and hitchhikers.

Interpretations may differ as to the specific meaning of blacks’ conspicuous presence in the movie. It may be Demme’s ironic commentary on Reagan’s policies with their “white supremacy” overtones, reminding viewers that, despite greater visibility, ethnic minorities are still oppressed and for the most part are at the bottom of the hierarchy. Or perhaps the movie is saying that Charlie, a liar (he has no wife or children) and a privileged (upper-middle class) man, is morally inferior to the black characters, despite a facade of respectability, education, and professionalism.

Like Something Wild, Blue Velvet was inspired by a popular song, Bobby Vinton’s hit of the 1960s. Like Lynch’s 1986 picture, there is a role reversal in Something Wild, wherein a female protagonist is sexually aggressive with a more innocent WASP male. Indeed, Lulu’s sexual practices (handcuffs suggesting S&M, fellatio) and her transgressive desire initially shock Charlie’s Yuppie. But in both, the narrative transforms and restores its “deviant” women into more traditional roles. In Blue Velvet, Isabella Rossellini’s “bad” girl is actually a good mother.

Finally, Demme’s film, just like Blue Velvet, concerns the delicate balance between the normal and abnormal, the fine line between the bizarre and the normal, a theme that goes back to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, but it is given a different interpretation and presented in a new form.

A rare American movie, Something Wild suggests and intuits about what’s going on in American society than what can possibly be known or experienced by viewers first-hand.

What’s amazing about Something Wild is its conventions-breaking structure, beginning as a screwball comedy and then changing into a scary thriller. Only a few directors can make a feature that changes tones and gears radically, while always maintaining a coherent narrative.