Roger Ebert Home

Bright Wall/Dark Room March 2023: Something Wild: The Other Half of You by Christian Craig

We are pleased to offer an excerpt from this month's issue of the online magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room. Their theme for March is "On the Road," a celebration of road movies. In addition to this piece below by Christian Craig on Jonathan Demme's "Something Wild," the issue also features essays on "La Strada," "Stalker," "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure," "Down by Law," "Tangerine," "Broker," "Wendy and Lucy," "Scarecrow," "The Long, Long Trailer," a podcast episode on "Wings of Desire," and their coverage of this year's True/False Film Festival.

You can read our previous excerpts from the magazine by clicking here. To subscribe to Bright Wall/Dark Room, or look at their most recent essays, click here. The above artwork is by Dani Manning.


Road trips, even the lousy ones, are transformative. You gain perspective, you lose patience, you resolve to finally sign up for an E-ZPass, to never again drive the length of Pennsylvania. The bleary-eyed you who sheds luggage from your shoulders after a day in a sedan is not the same person who plugged addresses into Google Maps to time the perfect playlist weeks before. It feels silly to wax on about innocence and experience while describing, say, an eight-hour drive from New York to Virginia, but the road really can change you, man. Time and distance work such an alchemy that whenever I return home from a trip, I look back at the person I was before I’d left as something of a fool: look at this dolt, cherubically loading suitcases and planning pit stops. How could he possibly know what’s in store for him? How could he have forgotten to pack his Lexapro? 

Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild is a lot of things—Renoirian screwball, Gen-X The Odd Couple, defense for the reggae mixtape—but it’s a road movie first and foremost, and it introduces its lead, Charlie Driggs, as a man untraveled. Played with dopey precision by Jeff Daniels, Charlie is a golden retriever of a Reaganite, eager to climb the ranks of his job on Wall Street and content with the grass on his side of the fence. Building a career in the big city implies some degree of worldliness, but Manhattan can be deceptively hermetic. 

The movie is beautifully shot by Demme’s longtime collaborator Tak Fujimoto, and begins by tracing the boundaries of Charlie’s home, gliding down the East River like a moat and clocking its exits on the Manhattan and Queensboro Bridges. Charlie reads like the kind of guy who might loathe New York had he not been born and raised on Long Island, but his world starts and ends between the Hudson and the Atlantic, and he navigates it as if it were Cedar Rapids. He is the selfie you take while you top off the tank, coffee still hot and odometer at zero. 

We meet Charlie in a corner deli, punching numbers into a calculator between bites of potato salad as old men argue and joke and kvetch across neighboring tables. Charlie is almost obediently devout toward his working-stiff persona, rushing through lunch to return to the office, but there’s a hitch: when the bill comes, he feigns a bit of mental math before stuffing it in his pocket and rushing out the door without settling the tab. And he would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for the girl eyeing him from behind a Frida Kahlo biography across the room. 

Part of what made Jonathan Demme such an effective storyteller was his capacity to deliver a novella’s worth of character within a few frames. Charlie wears his careerism like a new watch, but selling your time to a corporation, by aspiration or under duress, can never completely shave the edges from your curiosity. His impulse to risk his livelihood by stiffing the check is born from wanderlust, at least culturally if not literally; he has the itch that crawls across your skin after 40 hours under fluorescents. But he can hardly make it five yards out of the deli before he’s hollered down by a woman who calls herself Lulu (Melanie Griffith), buried in bangles up to her elbows and topped in a Louise-Brooks black wig, a sartorial Chrissie Hynde to Charlie’s Alex P. Keaton. Their dynamic on this SoHo sidewalk is a feat of costuming, a packet of just-add-water archetype scaffolding strong enough to support a long-running sitcom. 

Lulu chides Charlie for dining and dashing, pegging him for a candy-stealing closet rebel as he fumbles for excuses and begs her to leave the cops out of it, cowering less at a potential misdemeanor than his standing in front of a girl from the other side of the tracks. New York has long borne the mirage of an oasis for self-invention, and Charlie and Lulu’s straight-man/free-spirit tête-à-tête is more a reaction toward the roles they’ve assumed for themselves than an assessment of character. Identity can be fickle, an ongoing conversation between history and intention. The idea of who you are, if at all qualifiable, likely lies somewhere between reflex and performance, the real you only revealing itself after hours in the passenger seat. Charlie and Lulu are sizing each other up as much as they are enacting, if not inventing, the idea of Charlie and Lulu, but the bait proves sufficient on both sides. Lulu admits that she doesn’t work at the deli, and offers Charlie a ride back to the office; he walks into traffic following her to the car. The road is long; the sun hangs low in the sky.    

There is no better road trip than the one that starts with “fuck it.” Canceled plans are as seductive and exhilarating as a new drug, especially if those plans are work, and Charlie and Lulu’s adventure unfurls with the abandon of a series of dares. She had never planned to take him back to the office, but you knew that. Lulu cracks a bottle of Seagram’s Seven behind the wheel and chucks Charlie’s beeper from the window as the Holland Tunnel spits them from the city and into the wilds of Hoboken. She steals cash from a liquor-store register as Charlie whimpers trade policy into a payphone. They pin each other for the check at expensive restaurants; they screw in seedy motels; they goad smarmy cops and pick up hipster vagabonds. 

Charlie’s guard melts as they rack miles further from the city, loosening his grip on Charlie the Regional Vice President and trying on Charlie the Rebel like a leather jacket, even if that rebellion is ‘channeled into the mainstream.’ A current of playful danger winds its way through their trip, the kind that comes from skipping class and smoking under the bleachers. A new world has materialized before for Charlie, and he giggles to himself like a schoolboy, promising himself he’ll write this down, his very own Penthouse Forum for nerds. It’s as if the bill he pocketed was printed on the back of a winning lotto ticket. 

Recounting a story that could reliably serve as Dharma and Greg’s meet-cute is challenging me to consider why this movie is so much more affecting than its peers. The MBA-holder meets granola-cruncher conceit is ubiquitous to the point of tedium, and it’s especially grating when quirk becomes shorthand for underwritten women. Something Wild differentiates itself with the curiosity it extends toward its characters, toward art, toward America, and Lulu is a case study for the care and attention the film applies to its characters and the lives they run toward and from. 

Griffith’s character is not a vessel through which Charlie will discover the Shins and resolve his parental hang-ups by having a bunch of sex. Lulu is clever and calculated and often tender; her agency is on display from her first appearance onscreen; she’s afforded the movie’s best and most frequent punchlines. Like Charlie, she inhabits a broad-stroked archetype without being chained to it, and she’s as quick to display an unselfish interest in the family he keeps at home as she is to prank call his boss while he’s half naked and handcuffed to a motel bed.

Leaving home provides the opportunity, however temporary, for a clean slate, but what’s to be done with the self as tabula rasa is the choice of the traveler. You can wall up, making yourself a bell jar around your history and heritage, or you can become porous to your new surroundings, letting the sights and sounds of the road shape you like a potter’s wheel. It’s no secret that Lulu leans into the freedom of anonymity, and even Charlie can clock that her anarchy-lite persona is an act of careful curation. What’s more of a surprise is that Charlie is hiding something, too. 

Eventually, Lulu reveals that she’d left the city to return to her mother and her home in rural Pennsylvania. Charlie is game to keep the car running, and he phones home with a fib about going away on business to cover his tracks. But his lie is a layered one: Charlie offers his spiel about a last-minute work trip to a dial tone, glancing nervously toward a nearby Lulu and ending the call when a nostalgic monotone prompts him to please hang up and dial the number again. The reveal is surprising enough to read as a gaff, but it points to a complexity of character that reinforces Something Wild’s craft of curiosity. People are dynamic, and for better or worse they will continually challenge your assumptions, especially under the spell of the open road. For now, though, things are as uncomplicated as an affair can be, and Charlie and Lulu are again behind the wheel, en route for the Quaker State. 

***

Jonathan Demme was an artist’s artist. The late director cut his teeth grinding out sugar-pop flicks for Roger Corman before breaking out with critical-darling comedies in Handle with Care and Melvin and Howard, the latter netting two wins and three noms at the ‘81 Academy Awards. Demme parlayed that success into one of the most eclectic bodies of work among modern American filmmakers. He crafted monumental romcoms in Something Wild and Married to the Mob, he took winning Oscar swings with Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, he shot the greatest concert movie of all time with Talking Heads in Stop Making Sense

The most reliable metric of consistency among Demme’s sprawling body of work is its quality; he never quite did the same thing twice, but he always did it well. He married his wide-netted taste with a discerning ear to the ground in New York’s Lower East Side, keeping his art hip without feeling sweaty. Jonathan Demme’s movies are just so timelessly cool, and you feel cooler for having watched them. 

Demme’s hyperopic taste weaves through the fabric of his films, Something Wild particularly. Demme and Fujimoto made a road movie that actually shoots the road, eschewing soundstages and green screens for a series of slow-rolling convertibles. The decision pays off not only in the urgency and texture of its sprawling tristate streets but also in its execution of a killer mixtape of a soundtrack. Reggae artists like Yellowman and Jimmy Cliff and Natural Beauty provide the backbone of Something Wild’s music, a collection of 49 songs that weds post-punk to Britpop to funk rock. 

A slew of Demme’s uberhip contemporaries fill the movie’s roster—directors John Sayles and John Waters play a cop and a used car salesman; punk legend Su Tissue makes her last public appearance as the hilariously prudish Peggy (the wife of Charlie’s coworker); Demme’s and David Byrne’s own mothers play the owners of a thrift shop, dripped in fits cool enough to score four figures on Grailed. There’s a real sense of joy that Demme takes in making his movies, and that delight is reflected in a cast full of musicians and filmmakers and fine artists and family and friends. 

This filmography is buttressed by a duty toward diversity, but complicated by its approach. Demme’s movies are inclusive in a way that often feels antithetical to the sterile DE&I initiatives so prevalent in today’s entertainment sector. His commitment to representing this country as anything but a monolith is evident throughout his whole career, from PSAs about eggs to his late arthouse masterpiece Rachel Getting Married. Something Wild’s richness lies at least in part in its commitment to honestly represent the people that comprise the cities and towns you see on the road. Charlie and Lulu find themselves sharing cars with Black families, parking lots with Black churches, dance floors with Black classmates. 

But good intentions can only take you so far. Whiteness remains at the center of Something Wild’s voice, and the goodwill of the movie’s cultural curiosity finds its limits in ugly voyeurism. An overwhelming majority of Something Wild’s dialogue is granted to white actors. Lulu’s wardrobe is marred with Sambo dolls that hang from her ears; she shakes voodoo dolls and maracas at a handcuffed Charlie in a sour attempt at kink. It’s comforting to assume that Demme’s track record might have resulted in a course correction had he continued to make movies amid the long-overdue conversations around race and culture we’re having today. But assumptions are only worth so much, and it’s disappointing to watch what might have been an admirable approach to diversity dissolve into appropriative set decoration. 

***

I’m hesitant to cash in on a Tumblr-era buzzword, but there’s an inherent liminality in the places we rest on the way to our destinations. Something Wild elevates pit stops into tonal bardos, respites that can springboard monumental changes in character, plot, and even genre. Charlie and Lulu’s first motel levels the playing field, pumping the brakes on Lulu’s whirling-dervish tear and allowing Charlie a bit of agency as a caretaker. 

When they arrive at Lulu’s mother’s house, we see the end of Lulu entirely—or at least the idea of Lulu. “Don’t call me Lulu, call me Audrey,” she says to Charlie as her mother greets them at the door. The moniker is the first layer shed in a redirect that feels like less of a reveal than a refinement of who Lulu (or Audrey, as we’ll call her from now on) has been all along. She loses the wig to show a tight blond crop; she trades her black blouse and bangles for an ordinary summer dress. But she keeps her edge, allowing the tenderness that encouraged her to bring a nice, safe guy back to Mom to sidle up to her taste for oblivion rather than replace it. 

Demme has said that he was drawn to Something Wild’s script (written by E. Max Frye, of Amos & Andrew and Foxcatcher) because of its refusal to remain any one thing, and the movie uses these pit stops to supercharge its versatility. Charlie and Audrey (née Lulu) head from mom’s house to Audrey’s high school reunion. Against music in situ from the Feelies—a group far too cool to ever take that kind of gig, but right at home in a Demme flick—the couple leans into the groove of their fling: this is temporary, we have each other now, let’s enjoy ourselves. They mix and mingle with the ghosts of Audrey’s high school past, who all seem universally impressed to share her presence. Among them, serendipitously, is Larry, a quad-green dork from Charlie’s investment firm, who can’t believe a guy like Charlie could score a girl like Audrey. It’s a homerun of a homecoming, a reunion so kismet it can only exist in hypotheticals. But before the night can find its happy ending, Audrey’s liner-lidded past comes dancing up beside her: “Hi, baby. Surprise.” 

Ray (aptly named and played by Ray Liotta) crashes through Something Wild’s chassis like a commuter train, commandeering its star power and leaving a seismic wake strong enough to shift the movie’s tone from rom-com to neo-noir. Ray is Audrey’s ex-husband, fresh from a stint behind bars and none too pleased to have been replaced by a walking college billboard. I first saw Something Wild after Liotta’s legacy had been cemented for years, but it’s no surprise that this was his star-making turn. Ray is a kinesthetic coil of a heel, as charming as he is terrifying. He is smart, savvy, and incalculably cool, the kind of guy who can convince you that driving off a cliff was a good idea even as you wait for an ambulance in a crumpled car. Demme encouraged Liotta to play Ray like he was the nicest guy in the room, and the dynamic effectively sells how someone as headstrong as Audrey could end up under his thumb. 

Audrey grabs Charlie to leave the reunion before Ray can do any damage, and Ray follows at a safe distance—but not before he learns from Larry that, contrary to the story Charlie’s been feeding to Audrey, Charlie is no longer married, that his wife has taken the kids and left him alone in Long Island. Ray stuffs the info in his back pocket like a spring knife, and takes off after Charlie and Audrey. 

Road trips can turn time elastic. I live in Chicago, and whenever I visit my folks in Michigan, leaving the city takes the lion’s share of my time in the car. But I only feel the trip’s length when I hit Indiana, where Chicago’s sensory graces iron out into an unbearable stretch of gray. Liotta has the reverse effect: Ray shows up around Something Wild’s halfway point, but he heightens the pace to such a degree that you’ll swear he was only there for the finale. He beats the next act out of the movie like a mismatched street fight. Ray convinces Charlie and Audrey to come out drinking. Ray implicates Charlie in a convenience store robbery. Ray kidnaps Charlie and Audrey in yet another motel, where he beats Charlie bloody and reveals to Audrey that Charlie is not the married man he’d purported to be.

At first blush, a lie like Charlie’s—that he is still living a happy, domesticated life with his wife and kids, when that version of himself crumbled months ago—feels weightless. But where Charlie’s adventure had grown from boredom, a chance to get laid and party with a girl with cool hair, Audrey had left home to escape abuse. Ray’s injection into Something Wild’s trajectory renders Audrey’s invention of Lulu not as manic-pixie quirk but as vital self-preservation. The leisure of a road trip is a privilege, but it’s another thing entirely to be forced from your home under the looming threat of a violent partner. That Charlie violated Audrey’s trust when she finally felt safe enough to return home is an earth-shattering reveal for someone so vulnerable, and it’s no surprise when, dejected and out of options, Audrey exits the motel with Ray, leaving Charlie to nurse his wounds alone. 

But Something Wild ordains motel rooms as thresholds for the mystic, and Charlie emerges as a man reformed. He is bent on rescuing Audrey. He tails her and Ray from gas stations and parking lots, working the beat like a Bob Dole-voting Philip Marlowe. For as many times as the movie changes track, it never seems to sacrifice its charm, and the texture and joy of Something Wild’s world bubbles around Charlie as he waits for his chance to save the day. A man rips blues into a harmonica; teens trade raps outside a convenience store; a clerk begs Charlie to act like less of a doofus as he swaps his clothes for something less conspicuous. For all the vital danger that surfaces in the movie’s final act, it’s refreshing that Something Wild finds so much warmth along the way, especially when so many people in its environment look different than the film’s leads. 

Charlie finds his window of opportunity when Ray and Audrey are seated at a diner next to a table of cops. Emboldened by the law, Charlie, the whitest man you’ll ever meet, waltzes into the diner and takes a seat next to Audrey with uncharacteristic bravado. He explains to Ray that he’ll be leaving with Audrey, that Ray is a convicted felon in possession of a firearm and cannot afford to stop him in the presence of the half police force at the neighboring table. Ray is furious, but his bluff has been called, and Charlie executes his final blow by sticking Ray with the check. 

Road trips have the power to change you, but how long will those changes stick? Diving back into your daily routine is a powerful analgesic, and domesticity and capitalism work well to contraindicate the sage of even your best vacation. The return-to-real-life’s sobering effects are commonplace enough to constitute workplace parlance, and nothing kills the vibes of having traveled like admitting you need another vacation in a Monday-morning meeting. Exhausted and with nowhere else to go, Charlie and Audrey return to Charlie’s Long Island home. The place is a Divorced Guy™ paragon, comically bare of furniture and decorated only with reminders of that which once was. It pumps the brakes on the movie’s fun with the force of fluorescents flicking on over the dancefloor. Charlie and Audrey need sleep before they can make sense of what’s happened. Before she drifts off, Audrey asks Charlie what he’ll do now that he’s seen how the other half lives. “The other half?” Charlie asks. “The other half of you.” 

It turns out that this new side of Charlie isn’t all that far away. He can barely shut his eyes before Ray returns and throws a lawn chair through the house’s glass door, bursting through in a rampage, the pot of Something Wild’s promised danger completely boiled over. The resulting fight is violent, ugly, and stripped of the movie’s comfortable charm. But it ends in an accident: Charlie holds a knife wrestled from Ray’s boot, and as Ray turns from a beaten Audrey to finish the job with Charlie, he runs his own body into the blade. Ray and Charlie stare each other down as Ray bleeds out in a brilliant shot/reverse shot: here is the man that the other might have been, two selves on either side of privilege, of means, of fate. Ray dies; the neighbors gather on the front lawn; the cops take Audrey away for questioning. The journey is over. 

Something Wild’s coda returns Charlie to the SoHo deli where the whole mess started. He finishes his lunch and knows better now than to run out on the bill, leaving a fiver on the table before heading back to the city sidewalks. But he’s again yelled down a few steps from the door, this time by Dottie, a server played by reggae legend and Friend-of-Demme Sister Carol, a last flicker of the movie’s inexhaustible cool. Charlie is naturally confused—we saw him pay for his meal—but the dispute is quickly interrupted by Audrey, holding the cash Charlie left behind and decked in a Katharine Hepburn dress and hatpin, a Lulu 2.0 to mark all that’s been lost and gained. Their reunion is a near-wordless precedent for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s resolution, an ending that sees a couple who, having learned everything about each other that will doom their relationship, is still determined to give it a go. Audrey asks Charlie if he needs a ride. It is impossible to know whether Audrey and Charlie have changed or who they will become, but the road sprawls out from under their wheels in every direction. Rest in peace, Jonathan Demme.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Irena's Vow
Sweet Dreams
Challengers
Disappear Completely
LaRoy, Texas
The Long Game

Comments

comments powered by Disqus