Lulu's Back in Town or, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To My High School Reunion
While Jonathan Demme is best known for such high profile features as Silence Of The Lambs (1991) and Philadelphia (1993), he began his career in the mid-1970s by providing expedient fodder for the drive-in circuit. His earliest features—Caged Heat (1974) and Crazy Mama (1975)—tackle familiar exploitation material such as women in prison and redneck criminals on the run. Both of these films undeniably provide all the expected highjinks and titillation.
At the same time, Demme exhibits a fascination with character and setting unusual in the low-budget field. He refuses to succumb to stereotypes or simply satisfy his audience’s basest instincts. If the plots oblige him to engage in cookie-cutter motivations, Demme will simultaneously interject a striking detail that upsets our expectations. A notable example is the surreal dream sequence in Caged Heat wherein the wheelchair-bound prison warden, played by horror icon Barbara Steele, imagines herself performing a top-hatted tap dance. If Demme stands from the exploitation pack, he is even more singular for being one of the very few mainstream film directors who is capable of detailing the lives of the working class without descending to pathos or parody.
The protagonists in Handle With Care (1977) and Melvin & Howard (1980) doggedly pursue the limited opportunities afforded them by a hierarchical society but refuse to allow impoverished circumstances to erode their humanity. Demme’s non-patronizing attitude bears comparison to the master French director Jean Renoir, who believed all characters must be allowed their own reasons for being. Even when Demme tackled the film noir in Last Embrace (1980), the vengeance-driven female protagonist played by Janet Margolin is something more than yet another femme fatale.
Demme’s 1986 feature, Something Wild, newly reissued on DVD, strikingly illustrates all of these virtues and adds to them a mischievous willingness to intermingle disparate narrative models. The picture begins as a revisionist screwball comedy by throwing together buttoned-down businessman Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels) with the taboo-breaking Lulu (Melanie Griffith). She high jacks him from his humdrum routine on a road trip to her hometown in Pennsylvania, where he unexpectedly becomes her designated mate at a high school 10-year reunion. He finds out as well that Lulu’s actual name is Audrey Hankel.
The reunion sequence is a tour de force of behavioral comedy. Charlie loses his tight-laced rigidity on the dance floor, and Audrey recognizes that her stand-in surrogate husband has won her heart. At this point, the tone of the narrative takes an unexpected left turn when the duo encounter Audrey’s husband, recently released ex-con Ray Sinclair (Ray Liotta). Charlie has fallen in love with his wayward abductor, and when Ray takes her away, the chivalric protagonist is forced to violently win her back. The light-hearted tone of the picture darkens considerably from here on and becomes disturbingly violent when the two men struggle at knife-point in their final confrontation. What began in jest ends in tragedy. Charlie cannot be reunited with Audrey without suffering in the process and being forced to live with killing Ray.
When Something Wild first appeared fifteen years ago, the rapid-fire switches of tone and tempo Demme engineered seemed to be playing emotional hopscotch with the audience’s expectations. Compared to David Lynch’s nightmarish Blue Velvet, released the same year, Demme’s descent into chaos lacked depth or conviction. The notion of a yuppie-turned-vigilante came across as a simple-minded conceit. However, over the ensuing years, Demme’s investment in his characters and skillful direction of his players have gained in weight, while Lynch’s exercise in post-modernist irony less convincingly engages the emotions. Something Wild‘s two leads in particular, Griffith and Daniels, have rarely been as good. Griffith’s kewpie-doll sexuality has subsequently succumbed to caricature, but in Something Wild it is evocative and engaging. Daniels’s everyman persona has seemed too often to be an excuse for blandness, but Charlie’s transformation from feckless urbanite to committed romantic is convincing and compelling. Charlie’s experience as a fish-out-of-water unhinges his customary expectations, and Demme allows that process of transformation to be both comic and dramatic. In addition, the director is never hesitant to sprinkle his involved narrative with delightful details that come out of left field. As the protagonists cross the back roads of the country, Demme creates the sense of a crazy quilt of individuals operating on their own wavelengths, like Tracy Walter’s anglophile liquor store owner, and the black cowboy (The Texas Kid) to whom Charlie and Audrey give a lift.
The music that accompanies their road trip is as diverse and diverting as the events it accompanies. Demme has traditionally paid close attention to his soundtracks, an unsurprising practice for the director of one of the best concert films, Stop Making Sense (1984). The Troggs’s rock ‘n’ roll warhorse “Wild Thing” plays throughout the film, most memorably under the final credits in a reggae version sung by Sister Carol. Background music is by John Cale, a founding member of the Velvet Underground, and Laurie Anderson. Playing at the high school reunion is the legendary new wave band The Feelies, who perform covers of “I’m A Believer” and “Fame,” in addition to their own idiosyncratic material.
In Something Wild, it never seems as though Demme is trying to call attention to his own eclecticism by the score or by his fusion of narrative forms. If anything, one feels that, like Lulu/Audrey does for Charlie, the director is taking himself, and the audience, for a wayward ride. Demme never loses sense of his destination and, more the point, is always willing to take a detour, convinced that something unexpected and exhilarating is available at the end of the road.