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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘SOMETHING WILD’: ‘60S SPIRIT AND YUPPIE COOL

<i> Times Film Critic</i>

What in the sweet name of badness does Lulu (Melanie Griffith), whose tastes run from the primitive to the dangerous, see in Charlie (Jeff Daniels), so square you could put photo-mount corners on him? A nice yuppie husband, that’s what.

Not for her own sake, you understand. For her mother’s. It’s sort of a long story, but in “Something Wild,” (Friday, at the Coronet in Westwood) director Jonathan Demme doesn’t bore you with one foot of it. This is the Demme of “Melvin and Howard,” soaring back where he belongs, and long overdue too.

Lulu is planning a surprise trip back home to Pennsylvania and Mom, and she thinks that showing up, seemingly married to a sweet, straight-arrow husband might make her mother happy. So when she chances on Charlie, stiffing her favorite Manhattan luncheonette for the check, she takes over, takes charge and takes Charlie. Literally.

Sixties-style free spirit transforms ‘80s yuppie may sound like a road a little too-well traveled these days. We’ve already had “After Hours” and “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Desperately Seeking Susan,” which might seem like a surfeit of free spirit, thank you.

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But with his eye for the dark cloud behind every American silver lining; with characters who wriggle away just when you think you have them pinned down, and with music that provides both texture and subtext for his story, Demme finds haunting overtones in the somewhat old-hat situations of E. Max Frye’s first screenplay.

“Something Wild” also has three first-class performances: by Daniels, who seems to have resources that his earlier roles never touched; by electrifying newcomer Ray Liotta, and by Griffith as the maddening, mysterious Lulu.

She’s Lulu in Manhattan, with a black wig that completes her Louise Brooks-Lulu look, but this long-legged refugee from suburbia was born Audrey, and there’s no telling what will come out of Audrey’s handbag of treats. Quantities of Seagram’s 7. Handcuffs for the bedpost. Biographies of Frida Kahlo and Winnie Mandela for the boring stretches that life provides. And the coolest Third World rhythms for her tape deck, which she’s decorated into a neo-Afro-artifact.

With two personalities, different as night (the jet-black haired Lulu) and day (white-blond Audrey), she wows Charlie. And us. And he, in turn, wows her mother--who is, however, no fool. Spinning lies in every direction, especially in his home and office, Charlie remains goofily in thrall as the two speed across Pennsylvania in her various cars. The next stop is Audrey’s 10th high school reunion. And big trouble.

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As she proudly displays Charlie as her new husband, Audrey’s estranged, ex-con husband, Ray (Liotta), prowls into the place and a cloud passes in front of the film’s light tone. Dangerously good-looking, Ray is the quintessential high school hard guy gone wrong. He’s always gotten what he wanted, one way or another. What he wants now is Audrey back.

The chemistry among these three is scary: the tauntingly polite, volatile Ray; Charlie, discovering he’s better at everything, from lying to love making, than he’d ever dreamed; and Audrey, who knows one man only too well and the other not yet well enough.

As the tension escalates, so does the music, a juicy Afro-reggae-salsa mix that permeates “Something Wild” and seems to carry a message of its own. There is a wonderful world, it hints, ours merely for the seeing--a world light years removed from white-bread America, that throbs and bursts with music and painting and more joy than pain.

Demme puts all sorts of examples in front of our eyes and ears: kids rapping at a gas station (the Crew); Lulu’s astonishing apartment, an Afro-eclectic voluptuary fantasy; an elderly, practiced harmonica player (John Montgomery); the rocking numbers at the high school dance, by the Feelies; Sister Carol East’s cheerful a capella coda to the movie and David Byrne and Celia Cruz’s “Loco De Amor” under the titles.

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In addition to these great and various sounds, the technical stuff of the film is gorgeous. Both John Cale and Laurie Anderson did the film’s score; Tak Fujimoto (“Melvin and Howard”) was once again Demme’s superb cinematographer; Norma Moriceau has created rich and redolent production designs and the crisp, rhythmic editing is by Craig McKay.

“Something Wild” (MPAA-rated R for nudity, language, violence) has one hangover from the Abbie Hoffman “Steal This Book” late ‘60s that hasn’t traveled well: the part that equates madcap behavior with larceny, petty or otherwise. What’s the difference, really, between Lulu, disingenuously cleaning out a liquor store till and Ray’s armed robbery of a 7-Eleven? A gun and some muscle. But one act is supposed show a spirited disdain for social constraints and the other, a criminal mind, and the film makers don’t seem to have thought much about the peculiar equation they’ve set up.


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