Movies We Like
What happened to Jonathan Demme? He used to make the best movies. I’m talking about the films he did before Silence of the Lambs changed his life and career options for good. Perhaps regretting his film's instigation of a wave of serial killer-based entertainments, he got very high-minded after Silence of the Lambs and kept returning with more Oscar bait in the form of Philadelphia, which continued his winning streak, and Beloved, which did not. Since then he has alternated between director-for-hire projects and small scale documentaries, before returning to something like his old style with last year’s Rachel Getting Married. But nothing he has done in years has been as good as the comedies he did in the late 1980s. They were exuberant life-affirming spectacles. He brought a New York downtowner’s aesthetic to mainstream comedy and lifted up a dreary end of the decade—a time best remembered for comedies that celebrated getting rich or blowing shit up—with an offbeat sensibility. He was like an American Pedro Almodovar in love with the idea of New York as a melting pot of bohemians and working class immigrants, all tuned in to the same Afrobeat soundtrack. His New York was full of loud colors, Jamaican beauty salons, and cool people—one big punky reggae party.
Something Wild is his best film. It’s a film that celebrates a life lived without rules before segueing into darker territory exploring the same themes. Jeff Daniels plays Charlie, a nice guy yuppie in Manhattan that gets his kicks walking out on his lunch bill. Melanie Griffith is Lulu—she’s got the famous Louise Brooks bob and lots of Voodoo priestess jewelry on. She’s an edgy chick who catches on to Daniels’s pathetic act of rebellion immediately. She threatens to rat him out if he doesn’t get in her car and see where the day takes them. She’s going to teach him a thing or two about wild. Pretty soon they’re naked in a hotel room and she’s making him call his office while she otherwise distracts him. The scene is playful and sexy, rather than obvious, because Lulu isn’t objectified as Charlie’s "manic pixie dream girl" who teaches him to live; instead she’s the one in charge. The scene is more about Lulu’s fetishizing of Charlie’s straightness than anything, though we get the feeling that Charlie has been looking for someone like Lulu all along. It’s the complete opposite of how most straight male directors would have played the scene and just one of the details that make this film unique.
Lulu has plans for Charlie. She takes him to back to Pennsylvania for a high school reunion and passes him off as her husband to the people in her life that she left behind. She has an unexplained need to prove something to them. Charlie goes along with it because he's feeling good for the first time in years. But Charlie isn't the perfect suburban family man he pretends to be and Lulu is using him to a certain extent, even as he falls in love with her.
Even after we have left the noise of New York behind Demme still finds plenty of color and vitality on the road to inspire him. There's an openness to how he views people that doesn't stop with the urban dwellers he normally sets his camera on. He has a humanist's view of America and the brief scenes that mark Charlie and Lulu's road trip to Pennsylvania and the people they come across are sweet and quirky without being cloying. Demme's movies always feel like family affairs and there are cameos from a who’s who of fellow underground superstars like John Sayles and John Waters, not to mention a fantastic appearance by wiry East Coast post-punk band The Feelies.
The high school reunion is one of the film’s best scenes. Demme has a keen sense for how different types of people relate to one another and the scene has a gentle dreamlike quality. Charlie is introduced to people from Lulu’s past and gets into the act of pretending that he and Lulu have a life and a history together. Music is of upmost importance in all of Demme’s films and he cast The Feelies as the reunion’s house band. Their music gives the scene an odd kind of romance and it seems like the movie is going to get slightly predictable with the boy and girl finding out they’re perfect together. But just as The Feelies go into a moody slow number a bad reminder of Lulu’s past appears in the form of Ray (Ray Liotta), her scary ex-boyfriend. He floats into the story like a bad dream of her past and, on a dime the film turns much, much darker. Ray is the kind of guy you want to avoid at all costs. He's mean, he's a bully, and right from the start Ray hates Charlie. He latches himself onto Lulu for the night and turns their lives into a living hell for the remainder of the movie. Where Lulu gave Charlie a new lease on life, Ray threatens to obliterate it. Ray is a force of nature. He lives without rules. He’s the dark side of wild. Charlie has to confront Ray's assault on their lives and has to tap into a side of himself that he didn’t think he had. At first glance this weird detour into thriller territory and the film's incredibly brutal climax seem like they're from an altogether different movie, but while Demme has a feel for gently offbeat comedy, he still grasps the flipside of Lulu's reckless joy de vivre in the character of Ray and he gives it its due.
The ending of the film is bittersweet, like a hangover after a good party, but of course the leads are going to get together and live happily ever after. Demme uses the last third of the film to explore the dark side of wild but he still believes in his characters and sees the world as a fundamentally good place. Something Wild and Married to the Mob, another Demme film from this era, gave the mainstream a nice kick while they were around and it's a shame that he hasn't come back to this kind of material. Maybe he doesn’t see the world, or New York at least, as the punky melting pot that he used to, but his inspired view of life is sorely missed right now.