One of my favorite bands penned a song called “Happy is a Yuppie Word.” I never spent much time dwelling on the meaning of the statement, but as I grow older, it somehow takes on more pertinent meaning. If I remember correctly, Bob Dylan gave an interview with Rolling Stone magazine where he said essentially the same thing. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the song took its cues from one of America’s foremost bards. I start here because Something Wild comes at us ready to bulldoze the Yuppie conventions we come to attribute with the 80s and 90s. That is Happiness as this quantifiable qualifier for the richness of one’s life.
Look at Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels). He’s the picture of middle-class success and respectability. He’s rising up in a formidable firm. He’s always reasonably dressed in a suit and tie. He has his pager on hand for important reminders. And yet there are inklings of chinks in his armor. After all, he is human.
He still wears his wedding ring, but his home life isn’t quite as idyllic as he would like the world to believe. Likewise, sitting at a perfectly conventional cafe, he has an urge to do something really, incredibly outrageous! He steps out without paying his check!
Except no one seems to notice…aside from one pair of perceptive eyes. They belong to the one person who will change his life forever. Meet Lulu (Melanie Brooks). Her look is unmistakable with a Luise Brooks-inspired bob and sunglasses — an air of self-assured confidence. She could rat him out. Instead, she offers to take him for a little ride.
From here on out Something Wild becomes a road comedy-screwball hurricane propelled by a giddy soundtrack and Lulu’s total rejection of Charlie’s middle-class monotony. They go careening down streets and racing down the highways and byways blasting The Troggs “Wild Thing.” What follows are scenarios replete with shenanigans, handcuffs, amorousness, and more unpaid checks.
And yet if Lulu comes off as a glitzy, laissez-faire call girl, she slowly begins to show more of herself, including her real name: Audrey. She proves herself to be far more three-dimensional and far more of an innocent human being. She takes Charlie to visit her mother where they masquerade as a married couple in front of mom. But there is no malintent. The charade is purely out of a desire to please the good-natured woman. Then, Audrey brings him to her high school reunion — celebrating the spirit of ’76 — complete with performances by The Feelies.
If anything, these series of scenes hint at where the film might be going as it slowly sheds its craziest inclinations. In fact, the film takes its major tonal shift with the introduction of Ray Liotta as Ray Sinclair — Audrey’s former love. But there’s more. Previously the movie was frisky with a dollop of lunacy. Now Something Wild stands poised to takes a bitter turn.
We suspect it from the moment Liotta enters. He’s handsome and charismatic, but there’s an instant menace to him — behind his eyes and his cajoling tone — the way he handles the part in a kind of underhanded way. Reference to his prison sentence gives a bit more heft to his reputation. But it really comes to a head when he robs a gas station.
Of course, Lulu and Charlie did much the same before. This isn’t to totally absolve them, but Ray’s brutal brand of reality plays in stark contrast to the carefree mad-dash infractions Daniels and Griffin were accustomed to before.
This is a stone-cold crime with consequences, and there’s no longer anything left to laugh at. Crime, all of the sudden, isn’t a lark; it’s something callous. And with its ugliness, all the leisure and fun is siphoned out of the picture. It’s given up its roots in pure, zany screwball to be something else — less warm and fluffy in conception.
Charlie gets shoved around, beaten up and bloodied, and Ray ultimately goes off with Audrey — to take her back as his own — threatening that he’d better stay away if he knows what’s good for him.
Even though my education in Demme is brief, my inclination is a desire for him to go toward the film’s initial tone. Because it’s the idiosyncratic touches that function best for me. They do not alienate my sensibilities. For instance, Charlie proves himself to be the most conspicuous trailer when it comes to the art of the tail.
He sets up on a street corner with a new wardrobe across from Ray and Audrey’s hotel room. For me, it’s scenes like these where Demme really shines; he has a sense of geography and how to use it to build a full-bodied world around our characters. He captures his hero in his car snoozing or peering out from behind a pair of binoculars.
But the church behind him, the store across the way, even the folks lounging at the pool make this feel like vibrant pieces of humanity albeit in a fairly relaxed town. He uses this same motif later when they finally have their fated confrontation at a genial family restaurant. The only reason Charlie gets enough gumption to actually face Ray and Audrey has to do with the reassurance that some local policemen are sitting at the table just across the way. These are the quotidian joys of the film at its very best.
However, this is a story that never quite rests on what is easy or comfortable. Because in itself this would be the antithesis of what it is looking to shoot down in the form of yuppie culture and all its signifiers. There must be another fanatical reverse in fortune. It’s genuinely terrifying. Far from spoiling it, I will leave you to it so that you might experience it for yourself.
Instead, my mind goes to this. For how merciless and scummy Liotta feels throughout the picture, Demme extends him the ultimate courtesy. The climactic moments are unnerving in a way. I hope I haven’t said too much already.
But in a single moment, Liotta is allowed to look into the camera his eyes full of surprise — a sign of weakness for the first time — and that one shot nearly single-handedly makes us feel sorry for him. It’s a hard sell, but we’re almost there: Having compassion on a seemingly irredeemable man.
The movie settles into a new normal. The moral, if we can call it that, seems obvious. To grab life by the horns — with warmth and spontaneity — within some framework of reason. Something Wild lives up to its name even tonally as it seesaws around. It wasn’t quite what I expected or what I might have wanted, but this could easily play in its favor for someone else.
Demme still shows himself to be a genuinely humane director. He likes people and with comic verve and music, he’s capable of whipping up something quite enjoyable. What is more, he shows himself willing to go somewhere else with characters.
I am slowly learning more and more about his oeuvre, but Something Wild suddenly makes a film like Silence of the Lambs feel less and less like an outlier. The jump is not too far to make, and we come to understand his movies even a little bit better. If you humanize a gangster, could it be the next step is to connect us with a serial killer? Wild Thing, indeed.
But I started out by talking about Bob Dylan, and it’s as good a place to end as any. Happy is a Yuppie word. It’s something fleeting — momentarily attainable — and then stripped away from us.
Dylan suggests a change in paradigm: between blessed and unblessed. Could it be that Charlie would agree? Because whatever assails Audrey and him, they are no longer dictated by the world’s measures of happiness. They can live by a new standard — a standard that is not dispositional or material. It’s based on us and whether or not we are prepared to search out the joys and blessings of life no matter the turmoil. That’s something wild. It can flip your world upside down.