I’ve talked at length about the power of memory when it comes to movies. My mind is full of vague memories of studying VHS boxes, wondering about particular movies that I’ve never seen, weird scenes of movies glimpsed in passing. Such is the case with 1986’s Something Wild.
I can remember coming across Something Wild at the Video Place somewhere back in the mid 80’s. The cover was pretty striking and a wee bit sexy. For my teen-aged brain, that was pretty exciting. I never brought myself around to renting it though. It was an image that stuck with me; I’d come across it on subsequent visits to the video store, even other stores. It always stood out as I passed through the aisles.
Perhaps it was the bright yellow used for the cover that drew the eye. Maybe it was that caricature of Melanie Griffith in that black bob cut and the flirty way she licked her lips. Perhaps, it was the way that Melanie looked like Michelle Meyrink from Real Genius, because it was the 80’s and I was a fan of Michelle. I can say it wasn’t Jeff Daniels being his goofy self hanging upside down; I never realized that was him until I sat down to finally watch the film! Regardless, it caught my eye.
Though it pulled my gaze every time, it never enticed enough to get me to pull the trigger and give the film a watch. I can’t say for certain why. The important bit is, I walked away from that VHS box every time with a specific image of the unseen film in my mind. To start, it’s called Something Wild. This was a pretty common title tactic in 80’s comedy and earlier. They were usually straight forward, no nonsense and hinted at exactly what you were going to see. Revenge of the Nerds was exactly that; a case of revenge, served up by nerds! Animal House, gave us exactly what it promised; a house full of frat boy animals. So in the times that I saw the tape, the name Something Wild combined with the over the top portrayal of Melanie Griffith on the cover lead me to believe this would be straight up, typical 80’s comedy.
There were more clues on the cover that lead to this conclusion. Look at the font used for the title. It’s filled with another common 80’s trope; the loud ransom note font. There’s neon, animal print, wild lettering…all stalwarts of your common over the top 80’s funny person. Generally when you saw something outgoing such as this, your mind was directed straight to thoughts of outrageous types, such as Cyndi Lauper. And again, let’s take a look at Melanie on the cover. She’s bedecked in a very mod hair cut, covered in loud colored bangles, necklaces and jewelry. Another common indicator of the time that you’re in for a standard goofball comedy!
With those powers of deduction in mind, I never rented Something Wild and every since those days decades ago, I’ve had it in mind that the movie as a goofball 80’s comedy. Now that the film has been released on Netflix Instant Watch, you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that Something Wild was so much more of a movie than I had built up in my mind .
The film, directed by Johnathan Demme no less, opens simple enough. Jeff Daniels is a stressed out business man packed with self importance and impatience. Melanie Griffith is quirky and weird with an outgoing personality to offset Daniels stuffed shirt appearance. She confronts Jeff after he tries to skip out on paying a lunch bill, tricks him into going with her and before long, she’s kidnapping him to show him a wild weekend and to break down his normal walls.
As you can see, the movie does in fact play out like your typical comedy from the era. It doesn’t take too long for it to show that it has a darker side to it. As the movie rolls along, we watch Audrey and Charles drink booze, have sex and concoct spontaneous plans to keep their weekend adventure alive and to get Charles out of his shell. As they get further from the city and the day to day grind, we soon find that Audrey has some ulterior motives. The next thing you know, Charles is posing as Audrey’s husband for her mom and her class reunion.
Once we reach the class reunion portion of our show, is when Something Wild skids into the turn of darkness. Ray Liotta, playing none other than ‘Ray’, arrives at the class reunion leading to the unveiling that he is not only an ex-con, but Audrey’s true husband. He’s got a mean streak to him that is a mile long and he wastes no time into working his criminal wiles on Charles to pull information from him on he and Audrey’s antics.
So, this movie I had thought for sure was a screwball comedy, is actually a bit of a crime thriller in disguise. For a crime movie, it’s very quirky and different, but it’s quite effective in how it fools the viewer into thinking they are heading in a certain direction before spinning off to parts unknown. Mind you, this is not necessarily a thriller nor is it anything that would ever be called gritty. It is an interesting turn in storytelling though that treats us to something that is not quite common.
The characters of Something Wild are its strongest points, all of them well developed and full of multiple facets. Audrey seems cute and endearing at first, but quickly shows that she is quite damaged from an unknown past. Charles seems stuffy and fussy, bordering on typical 80’s power monger, but soon proves that he is riddled with insecurities and uncertainties on his path in life. Ray is the only straight forward character, one that is brutal and mean with nary a good bone in his body. While his turn is straightforward, it’s still powerful. Despite all the characters flaws, by the end of the film you find yourself invested and hoping for the best for this unlikely couple. Plus, with Oscar nominations for all three actors, it proves that these were well written characters that were performed pretty expertly by all involved.
After years of waiting, I may have proved myself a dope by discovering that Something Wild, a movie I had avoided for years, was absolutely nothing like I expected. As they say, and as I often like to ignore, you shouldn’t always judge a book, or VHS tape by its cover. Thankfully though, once I found the time to finally sit down and lay eyes upon it, I found myself treated to a small somewhat worn gem of the 80’s. It’s a good bit of storytelling from Johnathan Demme and E. Max Frye that maybe you should check out too, should you find yourself wanting something…wild for a change.