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‘Something Wild’ (R)By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 07, 1986
There may be no greater test of a filmmaker's talent than whether he can inject his own personality into a routine commercial script, and in that regard, Jonathan Demme's "Something Wild" is a triumph.
It's also a load of fun.
Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels) is a buttoned-up young executive with a secret life -- he's given to little rebellious gestures like sneaking out on a lunch tab. Audrey (Melanie Griffith), a hell-raiser with a Louise Brooks helmet of black hair (she even calls herself "Lulu"), catches him in the act one day and senses a kindred spirit beneath the suit and tie. She lures him into her battered Ford, and thus begins a wild adventure on the road, filled with motel room sexcapades, car thefts, more skipped checks, a sweet encounter with Audrey's square mother Peaches (Dana Preu) and a not-so-sweet nightmare involving Audrey's old boyfriend Ray (Ray Liotta), a feral lowlife fresh out of prison.
As scripted by E. Max Frye, "Something Wild" is a familiar tale in the yuppies-on-the-wild-side genre of "After Hours" and "Lost in America." The situations evolve along a predictable emotional track -- Charlie likes his adventure more than he wants to admit, but he's also afraid of getting caught, which only heightens his pleasure. And the message is likewise predictable, and traditional: The wild side is dangerous, and if a house in the suburbs isn't the answer, a condominium in the Village will do just fine.
But what makes "Something Wild" special is the way Demme enlivens it with his own quirky sensibility. With its rhythmic score by John Cale and Laurie Anderson, a title song by David Byrne, and cameo appearances by directors John Waters and John Sayles, singers "Sister Carol" East and Su Tissue, and the rock group the Feelies, "Something Wild" is avowedly an artifact of New York hip, but it never feels insular.
Because what Demme possesses, beyond a shrewd taste in the avant-garde, is a warm love of Americana that is never patronizing. Where another director would poke fun at a small-town woman named Peaches, Demme enjoys her from the vantage of her own Peachiness. He takes a running gag, in which Charlie actually addresses by name all those waitresses and gas station attendants with name tags, and makes it more than satirical, asking, why not call people by their names?
And since "Something Wild" is largely a road movie, Demme gets a kick out of the heartland, the roadside signs that say "WHOA| YOU JUST PASSED THE BEST SCRAPPLE IN PENNA. BACK 500 YDS.," the T-shirts that say "I DON'T LOVE YOU SINCE YOU ATE MY DOG," the weirdly funny cornucopia offered by a 7-Eleven store. "Something Wild" is embroidered with visual jokes and oddball characters in the background, but they're never treated as oddballs.
Demme is particularly acute in using photography and editing to give his supporting players the emotional space they need, and he can create comedy simply by the way he arranges a group of faces. Demme's geniality also makes him a whiz with actors. Daniels cuts loose as Charlie, and while he sometimes goes too far into actorish antics (particularly the self-conscious tour de force of a dance number), being a leading man liberates a jokey brio in him. Extraordinarily ordinary, Daniels turns low-key into high comedy. And he reminds you that, especially in comedy, great acting means great acting, as he works nimble improvisations off the life around him.
With her throaty warble and curvy silhouette, Griffith takes the elements of a traditional comedienne and yokes them to an untraditional woman. Her sexuality is anything but passive, and the comedy in "Something Wild" grows out of Audrey's singlemindedness of purpose, the way she resolutely unbuttons Charlie and makes him into the kind of man she likes.
With his greenish skin and beady blue gaze, Liotta is, if anything, too effective as Ray -- he's downright monstrous, and the intensity of the scare is more than "Something Wild" can stand. Demme, too, is more fascinated with Ray than he ought to be -- the last third, which is Ray's piece of the movie, drags on and on, to jarring effect. But for the first time in a long while, this is a movie that lets Demme be Demme, and the result is a film that's more than enjoyable. It's a blast. Something Wild, opening today at area theaters, is rated R and contains nudity in sexual situations, profanity and violence.
Copyright The Washington Post