On DVD/Blu-ray: Demme's 'Something Wild', with Daniels, Griffith, Liotta -- and John Waters

In 1986, director Jonathan Demme followed his astonishing Talking Heads concert film "Stop Making Sense" with "Something Wild," the best of the yuppie comedies -- and also the best of the yuppie thrillers. In it, once again, a proper middle-class character gets bent out of shape -- and possibly bent into better shape -- by going on Bohemian escapades with an adventurer of the opposite sex.

With Jeff Daniels as tax-consultant executive Charlie Driggs and Melanie Griffith as Audrey "Lulu" Hankel, the woman who shakes him up, it's got more vitality and spunk than "After Hours" and "Desperately Seeking Susan" put together. With ingenious locations and off-hand inventions -- as well as a terrific, multitextured soundtrack -- It is engaging, colorful, at times terrifying entertainment. It doesn't get stuck in Manhattan the way those other movies do: right after the opening sequence it turns into a bonkers road movie.


E. Max Frye's script, with its quirky characterizations and zig-zag movements, allows Demme's personality to seep in and color the material. The director gets a chance to work his way with performers and with America -- but let's start with the actors.

Daniel is a wily, original leading man. He's got looks that verge on the conventional and, right at the brink, become appealingly peculiar. Despite the long, straight line of his profile, he tends to ease into a hang-dog expression. But as soon as Griffith's lulu of a Lulu shanghais him at a Soho cafe -- and then takes him on a road that leads to New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia -- he turns into a yuppie puppy. He breaks into glorious naive smiles, or twisted, quizzical furtive glances. He gets frisky, even snarly.


Griffith, of course, has the trickier role. It's no accident that the first name she assumes is Lulu, or that she's first seen sporting a Louise Brooks bob. She enters like a cartoon epitome of the woman of mystery: the unpredictable siren who drives men wild -- and usually drives female audiences crazy.

But Audrey Hankel turns out to be first guiltier and then more innocent than she appears. And Griffith, who's pert, shapely and blonde, is alternately clear-eyed and shadowy -- sexually tantalizing and emotionally inscrutable. This actress and this character hang on to whatever it is that makes them them, even though it's impossible to tell just what that is.

If "Something Wild" were simply about a free spirit unhinging a closed one, it might be over-familiar indeed. But as Charlie and Audrey chase through a changing landscape, the emotional landscape changes as well. Demme has shaped the material so that Charlie has as many secrets as Audrey does. The film is less about Charlie losing inhibitions than it is about he and Audrey reaching an honest accord.

And Demme's style is less about dissembling in the usual thriller-director manner than it is about seeing everyday relationships with a renewed sense of possibilities -- whether for miracles or catastrophe.

The movie pivots on a high school reunion scene that puts the one in "Peggy Sue Got Married" to shame. These party animals don't just size each other up. They also try to prove to each other that they swing with the times. When Charlie runs into his company accountant, Larry Dillman, he panics at the thought of being seen with Audrey. (Jack Gilpin gives a movie-stealing performance as the smarmily likeable Dillman, with a silly grin that beams out from glittering, amusing eyes.) Dillman, who knows that Charlie's home life isn't what it seems, turns out to be impressed that he's landed a hot number.

But one of Audrey's classmates isn't impressed: her old flame Ray Sinclair, an ex-con and stick-up expert. Unlike the others, he's stuck in an adolescent macho greaser's dream. He feels he still has dibs on Audrey. Ray's name is ironic: he slices through the movie like a shaft of darkness. If the rest of the film celebrates openness, Ray personifies locked-in rage and a closed-off individualism.

Ray Liotta plays his namesake with a smoking, dry-ice intensity. Nonetheless, the film doesn't make an altogether smooth transition to Blue Velvetville, U.S.A. -- even though Demme inserts glints of weirdness throughout the movie. When Ray transforms it into a kidnap melodrama, the sheer gravity of the tension threatens to bring the movie down.

Luckily, Demme never stops pulling extra prizes out of his Crackerjack box. With cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, he captures the romance of gaily colored American roadside kitsch. He fills the film with piquant vignettes featuring personalities as wildly different as John Sayles and John Waters -- and as Demme's own mother, Dorothy, and David Byrne's mother, Emma.


My favorite oddball scene features "Stop Making Sense" percussionist Steven Scales as a convenience-store cashier; he encourages Charlie to change his wardrobe in his store, and soberly advises him, "Attempt to be cool." This scene also shows you just how much you could buy in the 1980s in a well-stocked gas station mini-mart.

My favorite moment comes when Charlie dozes off while staking out Ray and Audrey. As he parks between a motel and a church, a little girl asks him if he needs any help. It's a grace note in the best sense. In the midst of terror, it suggests an essentially comical and benevolent universe.

So does the soundtrack, mixing rock styles of every hue. It begins with a David Byrne song, "Loco De Amor," which contains the lyric, "Like a pizza in the rain, no one wants to take you home," and ends with a sensational ska-like rendering of the oldie "Wild Thing" by the funky, imposing Sister Carol. Like the movie itself, the score runs a shaky but lively course from the sublimely ridiculous to the ridiculously sublime.