There’s a fascinating game of movie fandom that goes like this:
“What’s the greatest movie of [that year] or [that decade] that never got the love, or the reputation, it deserved?” If you’re talking about the 1980s, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that it’s Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild.”
You’ve probably heard of it, and have probably never seen it. It came out near the end of 1986, and though it received a handful of good reviews, along with some fairly hostile ones, the movie was basically ignored. No one was buzzing about it; no one was seeking it out. Its two stars, Jeff Daniels and Melanie Griffith, connected on camera in a way that should have propelled each of them into the stratosphere, but the power of that spark never made it onto the cultural radar. (Griffith would have to wait two years, until “Working Girl,” to have her moment.) As the villain, the film featured a seethingly handsome young actor named Ray Liotta who was so lean and mean it was like seeing the movie debut of James Dean’s evil twin.
“Something Wild” was joyfully offbeat — a screwball Americana rock ‘n’ roll road-comedy-that-turns-into-a-thriller, a genre film that treated everybody onscreen like somebody worth caring about. (Even Liotta’s delinquent psycho had hidden depths.) But the movie, released by Orion, made just $8.6 million, which sounded nearly as lackluster back then as it would now. It didn’t catch fire, it didn’t cross over, it didn’t find an audience. Of course, it’s not rare to encounter a good movie that stumbles at the box office. In the case of “Something Wild,” though, the film’s commercial failure undercut a key aspect of its identity — or, at least, what should have been its identity. For this was a movie made, in its very DNA, to be a mainstream knockout.
It’s vivaciously funny and sexy and spontaneous, it’s full of hairpin turns that rivet and delight, it’s a dizzyingly unbridled love comedy that turns darker and more dangerous — not abruptly but inexorably, like a sunny day melting into night, until you realize you’re watching a violently free-spirited thriller about the true stakes of passion. But even then it’s still a comedy. How do you explain (or market) that on “Entertainment Tonight”?
In 1986, you couldn’t quite do it, because the film’s jumble of tones was pointing to something that hadn’t quite happened yet: the American independent film revolution. There are several key movies of the ’80s that embodied its spirit well before “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” such as “Blood Simple,” “She’s Gotta Have It” and “Blue Velvet” (the latter released just two months before “Something Wild”). And “Something Wild” is one of those movies, though technically it’s not an indie. It’s the skewed, mod finance-geek-meets-punk-bad-girl version of a Hollywood love story.
That’s the beauty of it. When you see Jeff Daniels, as fresh in his youthful gawkiness as the young James Stewart, in the role of Charlie, the wholesome uptight tax consultant trapped in his little world of investment jargon and dorky office banter, you know you’re seeing an archetype of the era: the yuppie sealed in his middle-class bubble. You’re seeing one, as well, when Melanie Griffith pops up, in her Louise Brooks wig and thrift-boutique wardrobe, as Lulu (née Audrey), the wild thing who’s into shoplifting and no responsibility and what people used to call kinky sex. She’s like Madonna in “Desperately Seeking Susan” only played by Carole Lombard.
Hard as it is to imagine, in 1986 the romantic comedy hadn’t come back yet. It was an ancient vocabulary that needed to be reinvented, which would happen a few years later thanks to Nora Ephron and “Pretty Woman.” But if you want see the rare contempo movie that actually gets much closer to the sparkly-daffy Punch-and-Judy erotic effervescence of “Bringing Up Baby” or “My Man Godfrey,” it’s “Something Wild.” Even as the film hearkens back, though, it also looks forward: to Quentin Tarantino — to his hypnotic vision of movies as a kind of heady cinematic smoothie, blending moods like mad, and to the idea that a film for adults could be a rollicking ride.
We tend to remember movies through the lens of where they landed, and since “Something Wild” landed nowhere, it’s thought of as quirky, minor, idiosyncratic. But it marked the moment when Demme, after his disastrous clash with Warner Bros. on “Swing Shift,” first figured out how to pour his sensibility into a commercial mold. That may sound like a contradiction, since the movie didn’t do well, but if you look at “Something Wild” now it’s easy to imagine an alternate-but-not-so-different-from-the-actual universe in which it struck a popular chord and leapt ahead of such mediocrities as “Legal Eagles” and “About Last Night…” and “Peggy Sue Got Married” (all of which were hits that year).
Two years later Demme would direct “Married to the Mob,” the combustible comedy that contained the seeds of “GoodFellas” and “The Sopranos,” and three years after that he’d make “The Silence of the Lambs.” “Something Wild” should have been a happy explosion, but it was like a fireworks display that fizzled before it got a chance to go off. If you see it now, though, it feels ahead of the curve. Daniels’ genial geek doesn’t just fall in love — he gets dragged out of his comfort zone of middle-class security. That’s what makes the movie not just funny and sexy but scary. Watch it today, and “Something Wild” looks like a parable of an America getting poked out of its complacency. It’s a great escape about waking up from a life of great escape.
WHAT ELSE TO WATCH THIS WEEK:
“Bringing Up Baby” (1938): One of the quintessential screwball comedies, and given that it was made 82 years ago, it’s a wonder to contemplate what a primal gender battle it is, with Katharine Hepburn’s haughty heiress putting paleontologist Cary Grant through the paces as if he were being trained. Which, in a sense, he is.
“Blue Velvet” (1986): It came out just two months before “Something Wild,” but there’s an eerie overlap that lets you know that something was in the air: Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth always seemed like such a unique villain (drug inhaler, blue-velvet fetish), but he’s echoed by Ray Liotta’s smoldering Ray, who has the same psycho-lost-in-time depraved-greaser mystique.
“After Hours” (1985): Another ’80s parable of a yuppie zapped out of his comfort zone. It’s not as dangerous as you’d expect from Martin Scorsese, but this was his small-movie-as-born-again-film-school moment — the bauble in which he taught himself to have fun as a filmmaker again.