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80s Meet Cute: Something Wild vs Into the Night

  The premise for a romantic comedy really needs a good, solid excuse for the couple in question to meet - meet cute, as they used to call it in the Golden Age of Hollywood, so unless you're starting off from a basis of this pair already knowing one another, say in a marriage, the set-up where they meet has to be original and compelling enough to justify our interest in them and their interest in each other. By the time the nineteen-eighties happened along, you would have thought every possible permutation of getting the characters together would have been done, but in that surprising decade there remained fresh methods of uniting two people for a romance, however unlikely they would have believed that to be.

By the mid-eighties, such creativity took in the Liverpudlian girl and the Russian sailor striking up a Cold War relationship in Letter to Brezhnev, a road trip for sex turning out to be a road trip for unexpected love in The Sure Thing, and a chance for a fun one-night stand becoming a night of sheer Hell in Martin Scorsese's After Hours, as if to demonstrate the various consequences that could occur should you take a chance on a stranger for deeper emotion than you may be prepared for. After all, the eighties was the decade where we were being told that we could very well die of AIDS if we paired off with the wrong partner, or were reckless with our passions, and the movies reflected that danger in some ways.

Or at least that was the case with the movies that gathered a cult following, from Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink falling for a boy from the right side of the tracks when she was on the wrong side with all the social tensions that arose, or in Near Dark going off with an available girl who happens to be a dedicated vampire, one who will turn you as well. But perhaps two films, very different in some ways but similar in others, encapsulated the feelings of romance in that era and how they could go oh-so-right or oh-so-wrong, often in the space of a single relationship, and indeed within the space of a week, or a weekend, or a few hours one night. Take Something Wild and Into the Night, which were released within a few months of one another.

Jonathan Demme had been deeply disillusioned by his experience on the 1984 movie Swing Shift, a work that he had poured his heart and soul into, by all accounts created a masterpiece, and found it taken away from him by the studio, apparently under the instructions of its star Goldie Hawn, and completely recut and refashioned until it no longer resembled his efforts. He then puttered around making music videos for a while, music being his other major interest, until the script for Something Wild crossed his desk and he was immediately hooked: this was the piece to rekindle his interest in the medium. Penned by E. Max Frye (who would go on to be a sought-after script doctor, and was Oscar-nominated for Foxcatcher), it was a road movie, more or less.

But that starting point was like nothing seen before: yuppie Jeff Daniels decides on the spur of the moment while in this New York City diner not to pay for his breakfast and skips out only to be accosted by a fellow customer, Melanie Griffith. But she is not outraged by this petty crime, she is attracted, and though she resembles an eighties update of Louise Brooks in her twenties cult classic Pandora's Box, she is very much a modern woman, to the extent of taking the lead and coaxing this conservative businessman into her car, whereupon they drive away and he is trapped in an adventure he could never have conceived of when he woke up that morning and bid goodbye to his wife and kids in his suburban home.

Before he knows what is happening, they are in a motel room, he is handcuffed to the bed, she is naked on top of him - and calling his boss, her idea of fun being living dangerously. This was not your usual romantic comedy, in fact it was debatable how funny it actually was, since there was a genuine edge to the proceedings that made the audience uneasy. The film was aware that this was not normal behaviour for a reason, be that because Daniels could be throwing away his professional or family life, or because, well, who knows what he might catch if Griffiths' Lulu made a habit of picking up strange men and having her wicked way with them? If that was her great hobby, then how far could she be trusted in any other area?

She does seem to have a cavalier attitude to conventional life, running out on restaurant bills or bribing used car salesmen (played by John Waters in one of many eccentric casting choices, often in cameos), but Something Wild was always thinking one step ahead to the consequences of such a lifestyle. For the most part, Daniels has been having a giggle, pretending as the trip goes on to be Lulu's husband Charlie, posing as such for her mother and the school reunion they attend, and it looks as though they will get away with this subterfuge - and then someone else enters the picture, Lulu's actual spouse. But not Lulu, Audrey is her real name, and she has been married to this man she believes was in prison. Guess what? Ray Sinclair is back to see her.

Ray Liotta was that antagonist, in his first major role and what an impact he made; many pointed out how the tone of the film dramatically altered when he showed up, but if you pay attention there is punishment for Charlie and Lulu looming, as much as for daring to think they could be free spirits in Reagan's America as for the crimes they have been committing and the lies they have been telling. Ray is, as we sense almost immediately, a violent man, and represents the opprobrium of every one who ever told you to shut up and behave, only ramped up to the most extreme degrees since he never took any notice of anyone who told him to do the same. It's one of those movies where lessons are learned, and laments for those who try walking to the beat of their own drum are heard.

Of course, many who do may come across like space aliens to everyone else, so while some eighties movies had the man fall in love with someone who was insane, like Betty Blue, or a ghost, like in Rouge, others posited the question: what if you were the weirdo? Nobody was better at that this decade than Jeff Goldblum, particularly in the David Cronenberg remake of The Fly - it doesn't get stranger than transforming into an insect-human hybrid - but in lower key form Into the Night saw him portray someone out of it in a rather more socially acceptable way, for his character Ed merely cannot sleep. His insomnia, in Ron Koslow's screenplay, informed the whole atmosphere of the movie, not quite surreal yet odd enough to seem dreamlike.

Even nightmarish in places, though not so much that Ed would wake up and snap out of it, leading to scene after scene of Goldblum looking his spaciest but in the curious position of doing his best to act normal in a city that increasingly refuses to play by the rules. This was where his meet cute entered into the great scheme of things, as when he goes to the airport one night, the sleeplessness biting him hard after discovering his wife is having an affair with another man, he has parked his car when suddenly a beautiful woman lands on it, rolls off and clambers in, demanding that he start driving so she can escape. We have seen that she is fleeing four Arab terrorists who are murderously keen to get their hands on her: they have just offed her boyfriend.

If you're thinking, this must be what the Libyans from Back to the Future got up to before they encountered Doc Brown, then you would be mistaken, as these violent men are from Iran, as we find out later when the plot is becoming clearer. It is Michelle Pfeiffer as Diana who landed in Ed's life, which contrives to have her stick around as she uses him as a driver, then a security blanket, but then only at the last moment does she realise she has developed a great affection for our hero, rendering Into the Night not really a romance at all until they cannot resist the concept anymore. What it was turned out to be a form of thriller, of comedy, of drama, that the movie itself lent its name to: the into the night film.

It shared similarities with Something Wild, not least because of the bursts of brutal violence that contrasted jarringly with the quieter or more comedic scenes, all under the direction of John Landis, who was making his comeback after the tragic debacle of his stint on Twilight Zone: The Movie. Reputedly as a show of support, when he asked a bunch of other directors to appear in this in cameos or supporting roles, there were the likes of Cronenberg, Paul Mazursky, Roger Vadim, Amy Heckerling and Jack Arnold popping up - but also Jonathan Demme, who was cast as an F.B.I. agent in the latter stages of the story, and may have been taking notes on how to approach his next job at the helm of his own project.

Into the Night was also notable for such oddity as David Bowie and Carl Perkins locked in mortal combat, but as an experience it was that not quite with-it ambience that comes from being too long without slumber which proved so memorable. Otherwise it was a mishmash of bits and pieces that did not seem to be connected to one another even when all was explained come the finale, but that feeling of things happening to you when you should be at the point of exhaustion yet cannot do anything to salve that sensation and fatigue. Even the presence of Michelle Pfeiffer may not be enough to help. But she shared with Melanie Griffith that unreal, simultaneously too good and too bad to be true persona in each of these films which in another age would have found a note to be cute and cuddly on, yet here contained that edginess, that refusal to capitulate to the conventions of romance when there were other elements at stake.

[Something Wild is released on Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection in a remastered edition, looking and sounding as pristine as you would expect, important when music plays such a part, and as extras there are a lengthy interview with Demme, a shorter one with Frye, and the trailer.

Something Wild is available on Blu-ray now. Click here for Amazon.
Author: Graeme Clark.


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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018