Negative critical overviews of the Hollywood movies released during the 1980s tend to dwell on the huge hits — the Indiana Jones franchise, “Top Gun,” “Beverly Hills Cop” etc. — and feel-good blockbusters on the order of “Flashdance” and “Footloose.”
It’s easy to make the decade appear to be a pale echo of the so-called “Golden Age” of the 1970s by focusing on the biggest box-office hits.
The truth about the 1970s, however, is that most of the classics such as “Taxi Driver” and “Chinatown” sold far fewer tickets than pictures like “Airport,” “Love Story” and “The Towering Inferno” (each of which was as vapid as anything released during the Reagan Era).
In the 1980s, you might have had to look a little harder to find off-beat American films, but there was no shortage of stuff that would have held its own in the previous decade — “Blue Velvet,” “At Close Range,” “Atlantic City,” “Blow Out,” “Mike’s Murder,” “Diner” and many more.
Jonathan Demme made two distinctive films back to back in the 1980s — “Something Wild” in 1986 and “Married to the Mob” in 1988.
The Criterion Collection has released “Something Wild” on DVD and it’s even better than you might remember.
The movie got many good reviews and received a wide multiplex release, but it was too eccentric for the mass audience. Demme and screenwriter E. Max Frye mixed elements of a screwball sex comedy with the sort of psychotic violence that would make Quentin Tarantino a household name a decade later.
Melanie Griffith gives the performance of her career as Lulu, a downtown New York woman of mystery who lures a Wall Street square (Jeff Daniels) off on a roadtrip to her high school reunion in Pennsylvania. It’s one of the few roles in which her little-girl voice and her big woman sexuality work together.
There are hints right from the start that Lulu is a very dark lady — within an hour or so of their meeting, she has her new companion handcuffed to a bed in a New Jersey motel where she has her way with him.
But Demme’s love of roadside Americana makes the road trip more charming than kinky and the bright and funny first half of the movie left audiences feeling completely disoriented when Lulu’s crazed ex-husband arrived — played by Ray Liotta in his first major screen role — and the story seemed to go off the rails.
The picture was a serious box-office disappointment but quickly acquired a cult on cable and video. As a 2011 New York Times feature pointed out, “Something Wild” inspired all sorts of pop culture that came afterwards, including Bret Easton Ellis’ apocalyptic black comedy “American Psycho.”
The Criterion edition has a gorgeous new print and wonderful interviews with Demme and Frye. The spruced-up “Something Wild” DVD could be a good starting point for a critical re-evaluation of a much maligned movie decade.