Written by Greg Barbrink
”It’s better to be a live dog, than a dead lion.”
So says Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels) as he leaves his Manhattan office for the final time. The line was given to him by the disheveled caretaker of a rundown motel, helping Driggs recuperate from a five-star whisky hangover.
The genesis of the statement (which sums up the whole movie) was one of the many happy accidents that occurred during the filming of Jonathan Demme’s classic Something Wild (1986). It was an ad-lib by a character whose total screen time added up to about 30 seconds.
Something Wild belongs to the brief “yuppie nightmare” genre of the mid-eighties. The film has rightfully taken its place along with Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) as one of the great dark comedies of the era. For anyone wondering whether the movie still stands up 25 years later, the answer is a resounding yes.
The film opens with the clean-cut Charles Driggs finishing his lunch, then quietly pocketing the check and walking out of a diner. When confronted outside by Lulu (Melanie Griffith), he feigns innocence, then offers to pay. She tells him that she enjoyed his little act of rebellion, that she does not work there, and even offers him a ride back to the office.
From then on, Charlie (as she has nicknamed him), is in for the ride of his life. Lulu is a firecracker, and it is little wonder Charlie is so drawn into her world. She convinces him to blow off the afternoon, and off they go. Truthfully, Charlie never had a chance. They drink and laugh their way out of the city, eventually winding up at a cheap motel somewhere in Jersey. After a presumably crazy night of sex, which at one point finds Charlie happily shackled to the bed, he has his encounter with the caretaker.
Things get stranger the next day, as Lulu takes him to Pennsylvania to meet Mom. She reverts to her given name of Audrey at this point, and presents Charlie as her new husband. Of course her mother does not really buy any of this, but plays along. What transpires is that Audrey/Lulu has kidnapped Charlie to escort her to her 10-year high-school reunion.
One of the hallmarks of Something Wild is how often the viewer thinks they have the story figured out, only to be completely thrown at every turn. At the reunion, Ray Sinclair (Ray Liotta) shows up. Unbeknownst to Audrey, Ray has just been paroled. He also happens to be her husband. It is hard to believe that Something Wild was Liotta’s first movie. His performance is incandescent. Fans of Goodfellas (1990) will instantly recognize the combination of charm and menace he displayed as Henry Hill. It was part of his style from day one.
Ray plays with the unwitting Charlie, and the all-too-knowing Audrey for a few hours, before staging a convenience store robbery with the two of them in tow. Again the script (by Max Frye) leads us down a series of paths, until the dynamic conclusion between Charlie and Ray in Charlie’s New York home.
Afterwards we find Charles Driggins packing up his office, and realizing that his trip was much more than just a yuppie nightmare. It showed him who he really is, and for good or ill – he is not an office drone. With its mix of comedy, punctuated by bits of serious violence – Something Wild was very different from what moviegoers in 1986 were accustomed to. In his informative essay (included in the booklet), critic David Thompson draws parallels between Demme’s picture, and what Quentin Tarantino would accomplish a few years later.
As for extras, there is a fairly lengthy (32 minutes) interview with Demme, and an eight-minute interview with Max Frye. There are a number of interesting cameos in Something Wild. These include fellow directors John Sayles and John Waters, as well as Demme’s “lucky charm” Charles Napier. The music is an intriguing mix, with David Byrne providing the theme song, John Cale and Laurie Anderson filling in with incidental music, and numerous versions of “Wild Thing” as heard through the car radio. An inspired touch was casting The Feelies as the band playing the high school reunion.
Jonathan Demme would later ascend to the A-List with Silence Of The Lambs (1991), and continue with excellent films such as Philadelphia (1993). Still, we have to wonder if he ever has as much sheer fun as he did with Something Wild. This is a truly great picture, and with the crisply remastered Criterion Collection DVD; one that is definitely worthy of revisiting.