Ray Liotta makes one of all-time great movie entrances in Something Wild at the 51-minute mark: The moment you see him sidle up to Jeff Daniels and Melanie Griffith on the dance floor at a class reunion, you know this rollicking screwball comedy is about to seriously change gears.
And boy, does the movie change. The film, which was director Jonathan Demme’s first mainstream picture (he was previously best known for the Talking Heads concert documentary Stop Making Sense), more than lives up to its title. What starts out as a comedy about a straight-arrow family man who is seduced by a free-spirited woman gradually turns into a life-and-death thriller. I can’t think of another movie that undergoes such a radical transformation over the course of its running time. And Liotta, who never topped his performance in the film, exudes so much danger and menace that you’re just as afraid of him as the other characters are. He’s not just capable of exploding into violence: He does explode into violence, and because the film had established its roots as a comedy, his presence is frightening and discombobulating. You’re just as perplexed as the two leads as to how things got so dire so quickly.
Something Wild, which Demme made in 1986, and the lesser Married to the Mob (1988), are the only two comedy-thrillers Demme has made. He’s gone on to make some great films (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, Rachel’s Getting Married) and some not-so-great ones (Beloved, The Manchurian Candidate), but he’s never returned to the comedy-thriller genre that few other directors have attempted. Something Wild has aged so well that the film’s excruciating 1980s fashion and hairdos aren’t the least bit distracting (also notice how there are coin-operated video game machines everywhere; ah, Defender). Daniels and Griffith have never been more likable – they’re a great odd couple – but it’s Liotta who owns the film and gives it its cold, steely edge. Why don’t directors try blending genres like this more often? I’m not saying it’s easy, but the result – when done well – is exhilarating. (The Criterion Collection, $30 DVD, $40 Blu-ray).