In an interview on the new Criterion edition of Something Wild, screenwriter E. Max Frye says he was inspired by the unusual sight of a spiky-haired punk girl and a buttoned-down type flirting with each other at a restaurant table. What could they be talking about? So many classic romantic comedies—It Happened One Night and The Lady Eve, to name two of the most prominent—feed off the dynamic Frye describes, as two very different people learn from each other and meet somewhere in the middle. Directed by Jonathan Demme at the top of his game, Something Wild takes viewers on an exciting, dynamic, wonderfully unpredictable ride, but it’s grounded in the idea that romance is like a long, sometimes contentious negotiation between a couple, one that ideally ends with both parties growing a little. In this case, the opposites-attract chemistry is also absolutely electrifying, full of danger, kink, and the indescribable spark that comes from actors who really connect.
The opening scene finds Jeff Daniels, an uptight banker on his lunch break, pocketing a restaurant check and slipping out the door. Strikingly exotic in a short black wig, a tight dress, and African jewelry, Melanie Griffith observes his crime and confronts him about it on the street. Turns out Daniels has a rebellious side—he also steals candy bars and newspapers on occasion—and Griffith sees herself as just the woman to let it flourish. But lest she sound like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Griffith has ulterior motives for picking up Daniels and taking him on the road with her; she needs a respectable type to stand in as her husband, so her mother and old acquaintances at her high-school reunion believe she’s straightened out her life. But a wild card arrives in the terrifying form of Ray Liotta, as Griffith’s violent, jealous, fiercely possessive ex.
The great advantage of the road movie is the story’s freedom to go wherever the highway takes it, and Demme seizes on the opportunity by adding vibrant bits of ephemera, whether it’s showcasing The Feelies at a high-school reunion, casting John Sayles and John Waters in funny cameos, or setting his production designer loose on tacky theme restaurants. But when Liotta shows up, Something Wild suddenly lurches into crime-picture territory, and the tone darkens considerably. The last third feels like a different—but equally invigorating—film altogether, yet still poses a final test for Griffiths and Daniels, who have to prove to each other that they can shift from handcuffs in a cheap motel room to a more lasting, meaningful bond. Rarely has a film been more aptly titled.
Key features: The supplements are stingy by Criterion standards, with a 30-minute interview with Demme and 10 minutes with Frye, plus the trailer.