Before Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia cemented Jonathan Demme's reputation as a big time Hollywood director, he made some of the most enjoyable movies of the '80s: Melvin and Howard, Stop Making Sense, and Married to the Mob. He also made Something Wild, a genre mash-up—road movie, screwball comedy, thriller—that stands as perhaps his crowning achievement. It's my favorite Demme movie, one I return to every few years. Something Wild begins as one thing and develops into something unnerving, wild. It features marvelous performances from the three leads—Melanie Griffith, Jeff Daniels, and, making his screen debut, Ray Liotta—a killer soundtrack, and a loving, detailed portrait of America in the Reagan era.
For a ripe appreciation of a filmmaker in his prime, look no further than Pauline Kael's review—first published in The New Yorker and reprinted here with permission from Kael's daughter, Gina James.—Alex Belth
For seven decades of romantic screwball comedies, sexy, smart, funny women have been waking up heroes who, through fear or shyness or a stuffy educational background, were denying their deepest impulses. The women perform a rescue mission. Sometimes, in earlier eras, they did it in the guise of dumb blondes (like Marie Wilson) or dizzy dames (like Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby), but mostly they were wisecracking broads, like Mae West and Joan Blondell, and Jean Harlow in Red Dust and China Seas, or they were kooks, like Shirley MacLaine, and Barbra Streisand in The Owl and the Pussycat. The theme of the repressed man being “brought out”—liberated—by the sexy woman is the male fantasy-equivalent of the theme of women's gothic romances, except that it's played for comedy, and that makes a big difference. (For one thing, it spares men's self-esteem: they aren't seen as yearning to be ravished.) Still, it has been worked up in so many movies that it's a familiar genre, and this may limit a viewer's initial interest in Jonathan Demme's Something Wild. But once you get past the disappointment of “Oh, it's a genre picture” (which can mean predictable and tame), you're likely to be struck by how authentically wild it is. The weekend spree that Lulu (Melanie Griffith, the porno star of Body Double) and Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels, the pith-helmeted explorer of The Purple Rose of Cairo) go on together takes the fantasy very far. This comedy isn't just about a carefree wacko-rebel heroine and a pompous man; it's about crossing over—about getting high on anarchic, larcenous behavior and then being confronted with ruthless, sadistic criminality. Something Wild is really screwball: it breaks conventions and turns into a scary slapstick thriller.