Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels) is about as straight-laced as they come. A clean-cut, recently promoted businessman with a wife, kids, house in the suburbs and Christmas Club account with the local bank, Charlie plays by the rules and lives one steady, dreadfully dull life. Living inside this Yuppie coma may be the reason why Charlie decides to be daring by skipping out on a five dollar bill at a small Manhattan diner. But like most novice rebels, he’s caught in the act. Not by the diner staff but by a fellow customer, a young woman named Lulu (Melanie Griffith).
Instead of ratting him out, Lulu has other things in mind for Charlie. Starting with an offer to drive him back to his office uptown, the ride quickly morphs into a road trip whose destination eventually leads back to Lulu’s hometown just in time for her 10th high school reunion. When the two bump into Lulu (whose actual name is Audrey)’s volatile ex-husband Ray (Ray Liotta in a movie-stealing performance), the impulsive little road trip of Charlie & Audrey begins takes some wildly unexpected –and dangerous-turns.
As with any road film, the journey is far more important than the actual destination. In Jonathan Demme’s wonderful 1986 flick Something Wild, the viewer is taken on two interesting and entertaining journeys. The first is a colorful and loving look at the small towns and inhabitants of Middle America, a geographical location Demme loved to explore and make a character of in many of his earlier films. From Manhattan to Pennsylvania to Virginia and back to the NY suburbs, Demme and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto do a great job capturing the quirky within the norm without turning anyone or any place into some sort of caricature.
The second and more important journey of Something Wild is the one that the characters take while addressing two big questions: Who am I really and what makes us happy? The Charlie and Audrey we meet at the beginning of the picture are quite different than the ones they are at the conclusion, and neither has really been happy until they meet each other. Despite that initial euphoria, neither is on the level with one another until Ray arrives on the scene. From that point on, for better and worse, the real Charlie and Audrey surface.
Thanks to winning combination of E. Max Frye’s smart, character-centric screenplay, Demme’s directing and two great turns by Daniels and Griffith, this is the journey that we emotionally invest in. But taking the time to properly flesh out these characters, Demme and company get us to empathize with these individuals. It also makes the abrupt change in tone from act two to three easier to accept (many have had issues with it, I never have).
The 80s was a period where Demme truly came into his own as a filmmaker of considerable talent. He may have become a household name and Hollywood biggie thanks to Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, Married to the Mob and the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate. Yet, it was output like Melvin and Howard, Stop Making Sense, Swimming to Cambodia and Something Wild that really showed off his artistic merit while creating the type of off-kilter entertainment that helped make the’80s Independent Cinema scene as great as it was. A majority of the movies made in the middle to late 1980s have dated as well as over-sized shoulder pads and the Moonwalk. Something Wild did the opposite: it gets better with age. Demme’s best work of the 80s is one whose cinematic journey is still worth taking a quarter of a century later.
I caught Something Wild about a year and a half ago at the Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The print they were sent to show was, as expected, pretty beat up. Faded colors, scratches, scratchy audio, you name it. The print looked like it had been dragged around by Audrey’s car on the road trip and then some. This was not the fault of the Archive, mind you. It was just an old print that, like many release prints, has not withstood the test of time very well.
The same can thankfully not be said about the print used for Criterion’s Blu-ray edition. Perhaps it was Demme’s or Fujimoto’s personal print or maybe Criterion simply lucked out. Either way, the 1080p AVC/MPEG-encoded image is a clean, surprisingly strong beauty. Given its age and the fact that the movie is more a cult favorite than well-known blockbuster, the transfer comes across even more impressive. Colors and black levels are rich, film grain is nicely handled throughout and the print is largely free of dirt, specks and lines (got to love Criterion’s work).
Audio-wise, you get one flavor: a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Like the video, the audio presentation is more than fine, a faithful replication of the original theatrical release. Dialogue is nice and clear as is the film’s terrific soundtrack through the left and right fronts. Don’t go looking for surround or heavy-duty LFE action; they’re not there.
Beyond the Feature
This is the one area where the disc slightly falters: the supplements. True, there probably wasn’t a wealth of behind-the-scenes material to choose from. However, it would have been nice to have had input from the cast members as well as the filmmakers, such as John Sayles and John Waters, that made brief but memorable cameos throughout the picture. The video-based supplements that are on the disc are all presented in 1080p high definition.
Jonathan Demme Interview (34 minutes) – The Oscar-winning filmmaker discusses at length the various aspects of the film’s production (casting, production history, music, etc). Demme didn’t do an audio commentary for the release, but this interview piece more than compensates.
E. Max Frye Interview (10 minutes) – The screenwriter of Something Wild discusses how the script came to be as well as the changes made in the final version. It is brief, to say the least, but interesting.
Theatrical Trailer (3 minutes) –The 1986 theatrical trailer
16-Page Booklet – David Thompson offers up a nice essay on the film. Well worth a read.
I hate the term “quirky” and despise using it even more, but it is a term that perfectly describes Something Wild. Entertaining would be another suitable term. Twenty five years on, Demme’s little road movie is one that showcases a filmmaker and his cast at their best. The supplements may be a bit lean, but Criterion’s Blu-ray is pretty hard to pass up thanks to a terrific audio and video transfer that blows all previous home video versions out of the water. If you are like me and are a fan of the movie, purchasing this disc should be nothing short of a no-brainer.
– Shawn Fitzgerald