Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels in 1986's "Something Wild."

Something Wild  

December 7, 2018

DIRECTED BY

Jonathan Demme

 

STARRING

Melanie Griffith

Jeff Daniels

Ray Liotta

Charles Napier

John Sayles

 

RATED

R

 

RELEASED IN

1986

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 53 Mins.

A

fter revisiting Cameron Crowe’s twee romantic comedy Elizabethtown (2005) for The A.V. Club in 2007, the critic Nathan Rabin noticed that the heroine, played by Kirsten Dunst, personified a trope recurring in independent and mainstream rom-coms alike. “Dunst embodies a character type I like to call the Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” he wrote. “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of

sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

 

The trope, which has also been epitomized by a mercurial Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938) and an easily distracted Barbra Streisand in What’s Up, Doc? (1972), was on my mind, at least at first, while watching Something Wild (1986): its secondary protagonist, Audrey (Melanie Griffith), seems a personification of the type as the film opens. Shortly after the opening credits finish up, she, sitting alone at a table in a street-corner diner, spots a newly divorced, mild-mannered banker, Charlie (Jeff Daniels), attempting to dine and dash. Dismayed at his stab at a cheap thrill, Audrey chases him down and confronts him outside.

 

Soon, though, the antagonism turns into a flirtation: Audrey finds the ever-hapless Charlie cute, and eventually rends the hostility. Perhaps inspired to teach this man to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures, as Rabin mused, Audrey persuades Charlie to get in her car — which is decked out, to the nines, in kitschy patterns and filigree — and journey with her back to her hometown. Charlie calls his office and lets his boss know that he’ll be out of town for the time being.

 

Audrey presents herself in a pronouncedly outré manner typical of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. When we first see her, she is ravenously skimming through a Frida Kahlo biography at a table for one; she wears her hair in a conal, silent star-esque black bob. She wears bright-red lipstick; ascribes to a style of dress we might refer to as Gothic chic; and dons burly, Technicolor jewelry at which we’re probably meant to gawk. Audrey says to call her “Lulu," presumably in a tribute to the heroine of Pandora's Box (1929).

 

When we hop in her car, our stand-in Charlie, Audrey pulls out a flagon of hard liquor, drinking while swerving on the road. She speaks almost exclusively in double entendres and one-liners. She is prone to testing her short-term paramour via pranks and, later, humiliation-inviting public appearances. The songs which play on her tacky vehicle’s radio bear a feeling of curation. (This, perhaps, isn’t an uncanny, unsaid feeling, though: The film’s soundtrack, which has amassed cult-like devotion, was pieced together by Laurie Anderson, the avant-garde musician, and John Cale, of Velvet Underground fame.)

 

When Audrey and Charlie make it to the former’s suburb-dominated hometown, though, the façade is dropped. Audrey dyes her hair platinum blonde and spikes it upward; she begins dressing modestly and acting decorously. It does not so much seem a new persona as it does what we are supposed to believe is the real Audrey. It was the Lulu character we had initially met who was the creation, apparently.

 

Audrey takes Charlie to her class reunion, where he pretends to be her husband and where he bumps into a co-worker, which is something that visibly unnerves him. But then Audrey’s violent convict ex-husband, Ray (Ray Liotta), appears, having started dating one of his former spouse’s classmates. From there, Something Wild devolves. What begins as a conventional road movie primed to be bettered by a Manic Pixie Dream Girl becomes something of a high-octane thriller where Charlie must protect his short-term lover from Ray.

 

The movie is only genuinely good for one stretch: from the moment Audrey takes Charlie home and shows herself off as the woman she really is, in front of her mother, no less, until we first meet Ray. Before that period, Something Wild is a gloating rom-com that feels a precursor to insufferable John Green tragicomedies; after it, it is a cockeyed domestic psychological drama where Charlie must essentially rescue Audrey, in a Hitchcockian, average-Joe-centered fashion. She’s almost always a piece of meat.

 

Something Wild is ripe to be called a mess, but because of that previously mentioned act — where we come to understand that the Lulu bit was a costume and Audrey herself is simply searching — the film does contain a handful of moments of clarity. Griffith gleams as she traverses Audrey’s spikily different personae; Daniels, though effective, is unendurable in contrast: he usually treats his newfound lady love as an object. Jonathan Demme, who directed the film and works off a script by E. Max Frye, presides over the forted tonal changes confidently. Each style, however inefficient when looking at the movie comprehensively, is brought to the fore with conviction and care. But levelheaded handling of disagreeably all-over-the-place material does not a sound movie make.

 

I don’t know what Something Wild is trying to say. Clear is the idea that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl routine Audrey puts on during the beginning of the film is another way of saying that this woman would rather be anyone but herself. She’s looking for meaning again after Ray, who put a strain on her for years through physical, psychological, and emotional abuse, ravaged her sense of self. The inclusion of Charlie is at first interesting, then bewildering. Why does Audrey want him around? Does she want him to “save” her? Does she see his vulnerability, want to save him, but find that she’s really the one in trouble? Overarchingly, Something Wild is, I think, supposed to be about two people discovering themselves in part because of an unorthodox romance. But I was unconvinced by the circumstances under which they met, the hoops through which they had to jump to continue their relationship, the obstacles over which they had to leap to get to a rom-com-ready finish line. The movie is never boring. But it’s confused. C