Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild is a Valentine’s Day movie for those who know that romance is built on deception. But by deception, I don’t mean the manipulative kind, where one person lies to another with selfish or malicious intent. Deception in Something Wild comes with a kind of charm and springs from a need inside a person to connect, or, if not to connect, at least to have fun. What does it mean to be “oneself”? And who says you can’t make up your persona and seek something like romance that way? People do it all the time. Both Melanie Griffith’s character and Jeff Daniel’s character are inveterate tale tellers, self-mythologizers, though the extent to which neither is what they first present themselves to be comes to light only gradually. Fast-paced as it is, structured for continual forward movement, Something Wild nevertheless has a story that truly unfolds. When people talk about the great film scripts, this is one that should be mentioned. Kudos to E. Max Frye. New revelations about the characters occur nearly every step of the film’s 113-minute way, but what’s great and refreshing about the discoveries is that nothing you find out about Lulu/Audrey (Griffith) or Charles (Daniels) makes you like them any less. In fact, just the opposite happens. The more the story reveals about them, showing you how they’ve lied to each other, the more your liking for them grows and the harder you root for them to come out okay and be together at the end.
Peaches asks, “You’ve got a real wife somewhere, don’t you, Charlie?’
Charles says, “That’s a little complicated, Peaches,” and when she asks him whether he loves her daughter, Charles says what sounds utterly sensible: “I just met her recently. It’s kind of hard to…”
Peaches gives him sounds advice: “You take care then. She’s got some strange notions about life.”
He says that he knows.
Next stop, as Charlie discovers, is Audrey’s 10-year high school reunion. By now he’s fully in the swing of things and even asks Audrey who he’s supposed to be. The two are having a ball together, and acting out parts while they have their fun is taken for granted.
“Hi, baby. Surprise.”
Before I continue, let me take a quick detour here into talking about the first time I saw Something Wild. It was in 1986, when the movie had just opened, and in mid-town Manhattan a friend and I went to see Sid and Nancy, itself a film one could discuss as a story about unconventional romance. Anyway, I loved Sid and Nancy, and that’s the first time I saw Gary Oldman. So I came away from that film feeling I’d seen somebody new and great. (Which is not to forget Chloe Webb, who is equally remarkable in the film).
My friend and I, both working part time and with nothing to get up for early the next day, decided on the spur of the moment, we’d go see a second film that night, which was Something Wild. It had gotten good reviews, looked like it should be fun, and we knew the main people involved from previous films: Griffith, Daniels, and Jonathan Demme. We had high expectations with that group. Why not? What we did not expect was the guy who appears midway through the film and conducts himself with such authority and menace, an unknown named Ray Liotta. I clearly remember thinking, as it became apparent how strong an actor and presence he was, “Who in the hell is this guy and where oh where did they find him?” Amazing. If you come to Something Wild after having seen Liotta in Good Fellas or Narc or any of the other terrific performances he’s given, you’ll be familiar with his intensity and skill. But I do have to say that I’m glad I first encountered him in his first major acting role. It was a thrill, among my all-time “Who is this person?” movie moments.
What’s ironic about Ray is that he does less lying about himself than either Audrey or Charles do. Audrey knows who and what he is at once, and after a short time, so does Charles. When someone robs a convenience store in front of you and makes it clear he’s a guy with a criminal record who’s been in jail, you know exactly what you’re dealing with. Turns out Ray is Audrey’s husband, and though she wants no part of him, he has no intention of leaving her so she can get on with her life. Though he’s been in jail for five years, he sees himself picking up with her just where they left off.
Where are they going, though, in that strange vehicle? We don’t know and neither do they. They have no plans. No movie like this, with a romance like this, could end on a note of certainty. They have understanding between them, and affection, and without doubt they’ll be adventures to come.
What could be more romantic than that?
Scott Adlerberg lives in Brooklyn. He is the author of Spiders and Flies, Jungle Horses, Graveyard Love and Jack Waters. He is a regular contributor to sites such as Lithub and Criminal Element, and each summer he co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series in Manhattan. Follow him on Twitter @ScottAdlerberg