Something Wild (1986): Quirky romance, cross-country crime & violent psychopaths

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I seldom write about upbeat, just-for-fun films on this page, and romantic comedies tend to be an even unlikelier contender for review. And no, I don’t believe that it’s because I’m male and therefore intrinsically don’t understand it, it’s because the overwhelming majority of them are shit. Groundhog Day, When Harry Met Sally, Silver Linings Playbook and Chasing Amy are all wonderful films that have a romantic relationship as a focal narrative element. They’re genuinely well-acted, well-written, funny and touching, so no, there is not an excuse for things like How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days or Friends With Benefits. My personal favourite, Something Wild, is not only one of the best works of the veritable auteur Jonathan Demme, but also one of the strongest examples of convention-defiance within the genre, celebrating irresponsibility and individualist anarchism, playing larceny and criminal damage for laughs, and brutal tonal shifts into dark and scary territory. It’s awesome.

Corporate trader Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels) is, to put nicely, a bit of a drip. While he lives comfortably and is about to be promoted to Vice President of his company, he’s about as outwardly bland and ineffectual as you could get, in spite of his sheltered self-image as something of a ‘closet rebel’. After finishing lunch in a local cafe one afternoon, Charlie elects to give himself some of that mischief buzz by slipping the bill into his suit pocket and dashing out the front door. This act of passive resistance to social and legal norms catches the attention of one Lulu (Melanie Griffith). A lively, free-spirited opportunist, she teasingly harasses Charlie about his misdemeanour, before offering him a lift back to work. The only snag is that she has no intention of doing that whatsoever.

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With Charlie bewitched by Lulu’s inability to care less about what’s acceptable, and her curiosity as to how far she can push this strait-laced milquetoast, he allows himself to be coerced into a weekend road trip of theft, racily doing the nasty in sleazy motels, crashing and abandoning cars and impromptu deceit to cover their tracks. With their wanton criminality and the fact that they’re both harbouring secrets from everybody, let alone each other, the duo would be textbook cases of antisocial personality disorder in many other contexts. But it’s screwball rebelliousness, not malice, that motivates Lulu, and there is an undeniable air of fun throughout their exploits. A somewhat nicer Bonnie & Clyde, with Bonnie pulling the strings. During their unpredictable adventure, Charlie & Lulu are confronted by a figure from Lulu’s past, Ray (a young and very scary Ray Liotta in his film debut), and the atmosphere switches gear into something far more dark and threatening. The balance struck between zesty comedy and outright thriller is part and parcel of what makes the picture such a special creature.

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Resurrecting some of the sensibilities of 30s/40s romantic comedies that featured the fierce woman/hapless man dynamic as well as noirish and farcical tropes, Something Wild similarly captures the whimsical nature of the honeymoon period. It possesses emotional clout without being sentimental and gooey, unlike the vast array of cynically exploitative romcoms and rom-drams where the narrative is lazily recycled at best, or depicts a woman putting her life on hold for an arguably toxic man at worst. Griffith is brilliant as the bold, smart and broad-minded Lulu, always being one step ahead of Daniels’ neurotic exclamations and never capitulating when he attempts to chill her out. Similarly, Daniels holds his own in regards to the chemistry bargain, portraying Charlie as a naive but ultimately likeable, golden-hearted romantic. It’s easy to see why the Farrelly Brothers would later select him to star as the foil to Jim Carrey in Dumb & Dumber, as while his character in that is a gormless idiot, he retains some semblance of average intelligence and normality while Carrey naturally plays the absolute freak.

Mentioning the screwball comedy aspect, I also wanted to refute a criticism directed toward the film, specifically Melanie Griffith’s character of Lulu being an example of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stock character. Coined by critic Nathan Rubin, it refers to eccentric and bubbly women whose sole function is to help an existentially discombobulated man embrace and enjoy life, having no goals or backstory of her own. I personally feel that placing Lulu under this banner is complete crap. Yes, Charlie is a repressed guy with some blinkers on, but Lulu is the dominant force of nature here, she doesn’t coddle him when he annoys her, she guilts or mocks him when he has a tantrum, and she is clearly established as having an interior history. She is not the fucked-up girl who has been assigned a man’s peace of mind despite searching for her own, to paraphrase Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. It’s a film about two divergent people on a strange and reckless odyssey across the U.S., not the introverted-and-dysfunctional male fantasy tales depicted in films like Elizabethtown or Garden State. Unlike Natalie Portman & Kirsten Dunst’s Golden Fantasy women in those respective films, most men, however delusionally self-pitying and brooding they are, would likely run for the hills if they crossed paths with Lulu. That’s part of why the film is hilarious.

The appearance of Liotta’s character halfway through the film is emblematic of the humanistic, outside-of-the-box approach that Demme became revered for applying to his works. It turns what was already an intense and precarious experience for Charlie into an unmitigated nightmare, as while the character of Ray is exceptionally well-executed, there is definitely nothing funny about him. The more seriously Charlie feels about Lulu, the more serious the external factors on their journey become. A lot of contemporary genre examples might feature a rival to the hero in the form of a sexually arrogant, self-styled alpha male douchebag, but wide-eyed, cackling homicidal career criminals are a bit rarer as they’re unlikely to prompt much cinema revenue on Valentine’s Day.

All in all, it’s a mad conceit to accept, but that’s the point. Most of the narratives in romantic comedies and romantic dramas would never conceivably play out in reality, but there’s no reason for the escapism to be so damn cheesy all of the time. The characters here have great, earthy chemistry, the humour is both subtle and offbeat, and when the sexy, breezy road movie meets the frightening thriller in the middle, it doesn’t feel like a clash in the least. If you want something decent to watch with your significant other, want something creative to watch just for yourself, or if you’re the type of person whose cinematic mission statement includes flat-out hating anything to do with romance, just give this one a shot if you haven’t seen it. It’s a cult classic for many good reasons.

 

 

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