Tuesday, February 11, 2020

My Felonious Valentine: Scott Adlerberg on Something Wild

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.

Lulu reads into Charles right away. When he pockets his lunch check and walks out of the Greenwich Village café without paying, she sees that underneath his three-piece suit and straight-laced demeanor lies the heart of a rebel. Or at least, someone with a streak of non-conformity in his soul. The escapades, including sex, that she leads him on have a degree of danger to them, but it doesn’t take long for Charles to go with the wild flow. And for the most part, despite the danger that comes with drinking while driving, crashing her convertible, and fleeing from a restaurant without paying, Charles warms to Lulu and finds himself having an exhilarating time. The mood between the two here is screwball, and we’re not talking about love yet, just guilt-free abandon. Charles believes what Lulu tells him about herself (she alludes to being divorced), and Lulu believes what Charles says about himself, namely, that he has a wife and kids. She gets the excitement of pulling a family man away from his boring routine; he ostensibly will have a weekend to remember before he returns to his life in the Long Island burbs. Lulu is so flamboyant and theatrical that we know she could be something of a put-on, but it does come as a jolt to see that Charles is playing pretend himself. When he claims to be on the phone with his wife, he is actually speaking to a dial tone.

It’s Lulu, of the pair, who unpeels a layer of herself first. But when Charles finds out that she’s blonde and not a brunette and comes from an ordinary small-town house and has a plain straightforward mother called Peaches, he doesn’t think any less of her. Nor is he upset to hear that her real name is Audrey. He likes her, and her sudden switch from freewheeling woman to sweet and loving daughter who appears before him in something as unglamorous as face cream doesn’t faze him at all. He plays along when Audrey tells her mother that she and Charles are married and have all sorts of future plans. That he can lie so casually reminds us that he may not have told Audrey the complete truth about himself, but he comes clean to the mother when Peaches, knowing her daughter cold, asks him about his wife as the two of them are washing and drying dishes together.

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.

The prom is where the audience sees that Charles may indeed be falling in love with Audrey. As the reunion band plays and he and Audrey dance with ease and silliness and humor, you see a genuine connection developing. He has an uncomfortable conversation with a woman at the bar but then rushes back to Audrey and soon they embrace with a natural and totally romantic kiss. They’ve reached a high point and seem well on their way to good things. And yet…and yet…darkness is  lurking near them. They just don’t know it. Neither, on first viewing, does the audience. But just like in life, an unforeseen darkness is close to them, and in one of the great tonal shifts in movie history, that darkness begins to intrude on their lives the instant the lights on the dance floor dim and their big kiss ends and the band – the real band The Feelies – begins to play the opening bars to Loveless Love.

Hi, baby. Surprise.

Enter Ray.


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.

Now back to the story, and Charles and Audrey’s endangered romance.


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.

Would you call what he feels for her love? Maybe you’d call it loveless love, like the title of the song that was played. What’s clear is that his feelings for Audrey present a contrast to how Charles relates to her. Charles followed her lead in most things; Ray wants to dominate and control her. Ray wants to see how she’ll look in a new bathing suit, and when she tries to escape from him by sprinting across a motel lawn, he chases her down, picks her up, and throws her in the motel pool. His emotion for her definitely reeks of what we’d now call toxic masculinity. At the same time, he’s not stupid. Through Ray’s prodding, Charles discloses to Ray and Audrey what Ray has already managed to learn about Charles’ marriage – that it is over and Charles’ wife left him several months ago. This shocks and angers Audrey. Despite the tale spinning she did herself, she doesn’t like to be on the receiving end of deception. She’s unhappy and Charles is unhappy as well. Because of their mutual deceptions, their relationship, so promising earlier in the night, has reached a nadir. And it’s Ray alone who appreciates the irony. As he says, “Whooeee. Hahahahaha. Charlie, this is Audrey. Audrey, this is Charlie.  Hahahahaha.  Who’s shittin’ who here? Unbelievable.

On their earlier road trip, when they were having a blast, Charlie had said something to Audrey that you might not have taken seriously. It’s a line he said about himself that sounded like a guy trying to impress a woman. Charles said that he may look straight but that what’s inside is what counts and that deep down, he has got what it takes. His nose broken by Ray, told to “get the fuck out” by Ray, you’d think that Charlie would slink back to Long Island and his safe life and Wall Street job. But he does not. Now that everyone has their cards on the table, he regroups and we see the “real” Charles, a gutsy and clever guy who will put himself at risk to get Audrey back. Charles does have what it takes. Demme gives us suspense and tension instead of the film’s first half of comedy, and love has to prove itself through an ordeal that leads to violence and death. Even then, it’s not easy for Audrey and Charles to connect; death means the involvement of law enforcement. It appears that Charles may never see Audrey again, but we know the impact she’s made on his life because he quits his job and all the stultification it represents. We know he loves her because he tries to track her down by visiting the building her apartment is in. She has left. A woman in the street he thinks is Audrey is not Audrey. Maybe all the deceptions he and Audrey worked on each other, maybe the nightmare that developed when Ray entered the picture, has made romance between Charles and Audrey impossible. But of course, in the end, Something Wild is a comedy, in the classical sense, and that means a happy ending.

Their meeting that concludes the film, at the same café where they first met, inverts the opening scene. This time, Charles pays his check, but when he goes outside, a waitress from the café tells him he did not pay. Charles is confused, but Audrey, now appearing, has played a trick on him yet again, not unlike how she fooled him the first time they met. But if ever someone was happy to be on the receiving end of a joke, it’s Charles. Not only will he accept her offer for a ride, he’ll open the door to the odd new car she has, hold it open for her till she gets in, and gladly take the wheel himself. Charles knows who Audrey is and vice versa, and finally they are ready to be with each other without playing self-invented roles.

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

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