Tag Archives: Jeff Daniels

CAPSULE: SOMETHING WILD (1986)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Melanie Griffith, Ray Liotta

PLOT: Straight-laced businessman Charlie impulsively hops into a car with wild gal Lulu, who takes him on an extended adventure that exhilarates him until her psycho ex-con ex arrives on the scene.

Still from Something Wild (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: I must be missing something about Something Wild. I get why people like it: likeable cast top to bottom, sexy Melanie Griffith, easy to follow story that’s comfortably familiar but still manages to surprise. What I don’t get is its cult movie reputation, Criterion Collection-worthiness, or recommendation for coverage on a weird movie site.

COMMENTS: Something Wild is a masculine mid-life crisis daydream, with Melanie Griffith as the manic pixie dream girl on a meth binge who leads “closet rebel” yuppie Jeff Bridges into a wonderland of forbidden pleasures and the danger that accompanies them. Casual drinking and driving, handcuffs as a sex toy, cruising down the highway in a convertible, picking up hitchhikers, shoplifting, dash-and-dines, singalongs to unthreatening rock and roll hits, jealous stares at the wild babe on your arm, winning the girl’s heart away from the abusive bad boy jock—all the joys of the late teenage years are here, for a middle aged man who really knows how to appreciate them to savor. Bridges’ Charlie is a solidly nice guy, who remains so in our eyes even after he abandons his wife, children and colleagues. In real life Griffth’s kooky free-spirited Lulu would be an alcoholic sociopath destined for a bad end. In the movie’s reality, however, the mismatched couple have nothing but sexy wacky adventures—at least, until Ray Liotta springs onto the scene like a blade out of a switchblade to add a dose of the dangerous reality that would face any two people who let their hormones lead them this far astray.

Maybe the mild kinkiness and the tone-shift (which is frequently overstated in its impact) seemed fresh in 1986—although maybe not, considering that was the year that gave us Blue Velvet. If there’s anything remarkable about Something Wild, it’s the way that the script and direction keep us so darn comfortable with Charlie and Lulu’s outré adventures, grounding them in the conventions of realist romantic comedy while teasing us that we are glimpsing the exotic pleasures of the hedonist set. Offbeat and sexy, this is a fine comfort movie to watch while munching popcorn on the sofa—but it’s not hard to find something wilder. Just browse the sidebar here.

Look for cameos by directors John Sayles and . Extras on the relatively bare Criterion Collection disc include the trailer, a 30-minute interview with director Demme, and a 10-minute discussion with screenwriter E. Max Frye. This is not to be confused with 1961’s less-known but arguably weirder Something Wild, starring Carroll Baker as a rape victim in a fugue state, which is also in the Criterion Collection.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Demme is a master of finding the bizarre in the ordinary.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Brad.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

WOODY ALLEN’S PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985)

In her review of ‘s The Purple Rose Of Cairo (1985), critic Pauline Kael wrote: “it seems scaled to [Mia Farrow’s] cheekbones.” This is Kael at her charmingly brief, astute best, inspired by what may be Allen at his best. Allen jumps from the diving board of ‘s Sherlock Jr. (a List Candidate), Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, and his own Play It Again, Sam (1972). In turn, The Purple Rose Of Cairo influenced film such as Maurizio Nichetti’s The Icicle Thief (1989), Gary Ross’ Pleasantville (1998) and Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber (2010). When released, The Purple Rose Of Cairo received almost universal critical acclaim, but its downbeat ending and flights of fancy put off American audiences.

I vaguely recall a review of the mediocre Bing Crosby vehicle Pennies From Heaven (1936). The critic (I think it was Leslie Halliwell) made a point that the Depression era man was all but forgotten, an alien in the contemporary world. Not to Allen, whose warmth here is both sensitive and genuinely emotional. Allen finds the pulse of a Depression era prerequisite: balancing fantasy with the all too austere physical world, which demands Allen’s deflating-the-cinematic-tire finale.

The lead performances from and Mia Farrow are exemplary. Perhaps the most unfortunate repercussion of the acidic Allen/Farrow split is the loss of his ultimate leading lady. She is matched by Jeff Daniels’ insipid matinee idol and Danny Aiello‘s thug of a husband (Allen acted opposite Aiello in 1976 in Martin Ritt’s The Front and the two would collaborate again in 1987’s Radio Days). As he did in Midnight In Paris (2011), Allen embraces the simplicity of romanticism while offering a droll critique, shorn of cynicism.

Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)Stuck in a loveless marriage to her husband, Monk (Aiello), and in a low-paying job as an New Jersey waitress with a tyrannical employer (David Kierserman), Cecilia (Farrow) seeks sanctuary in her daily visits to the cinema. On one such occasion, the screen character of Tom Baxter (Daniels) literally walks off the screen and into her life. In the real world, Tom, a product of the Hays Code with remnants of silent screen mannerisms, discovers the alien concepts of sex, pregnancy, poverty and street fighting, which allows for ecstatic, precise comedy. Gil (also Daniels), the Hollywood actor who plays Tom, enters the real-life drama, giving rise to Allen’s clear-eyed peeves (we knew they were coming). Still, Allen’s writing is exquisitely stylized. Watching this film from his middle, mature era, we realize that it’s not his directing—which has become jaded in the last decade—that impresses, but his writing. Of course, Allen includes his self in his assessments, mocking the pretentiousness of his own Bergman adulation, while extolling those small movies which make us laugh.

The Purple Rose of Cairo is an innovative, folksy classic. Who would think that possible from Allen? Actually, it’s totally within character.

Next week the Woody Allen series wraps with the early experiment,  What’s Up, Tiger Lilly (1966).

CAPSULE: ESCANABA IN DA MOONLIGHT (2001)

DIRECTED BY: Jeff Daniels

FEATURING: Jeff Daniels, Harve Presnell, Joey Albright, Wayne David Parker, Randall Godwin, Kimberly Guerrero

PLOT: 42-year old Rueben must bag a buck during this year’s deer season or he’ll become

Escanaba in da Moonlight (2001)

the oldest male in the history of the Soady family never to have done so; with the help of a potion supplied by his Native American wife, he encounters strange supernatural forces that help him in his quest.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTEscanaba is unique, at least: it’s got an interesting subject (the deer hunting subculture in Upper Michigan), lots of local color, and evil spirits (or UFOs, or God) haunting the woods.  Jeff Daniels has a lot of ideas here, but most of them fail: the crude quirk and sporadic weirdness never gels into something either meaningful or mirthful.  It ends up as a regional indie curiosity.  Escanaba does have its share of dedicated fans (mostly Michiganders)—must be a Yooper thing, eh?

COMMENTS:   The name Escanaba in da Moonlight sounds pretty cool, but doesn’t really fit the film—almost none of the action takes place in the town of Escanaba, and what little that does happens in the glare of the sun.  There’s plenty of moonlight, but it all falls well outside the town’s borders.  That’s pretty much the story of the movie, which puts things in just because they seemed cool at the time, without paying attention to whether they fit or not.  The movie knows where its soul is—holed up in the woods of the Upper Peninsula in a shack stocked with of maple whiskey and Leinenkugels, pronouncing its “th”‘s as “d”‘s, worried whether this will be the year middle-aged Rueben Soady finally shoots a deer.  It’s a recipe for a low-key male bonding comedy, but Escanaba loses its way when it expands beyond deer camp and goes cosmic.  Rueben is determined to break his curse before he becomes the record holder for oldest buckless Soady male, so he drinks a potion brewed by his mystically-attuned Indian wife and things get a bit weird.  Rueben and his camp pals—crusty but supportive dad, superstitious brother, and a family friend named “da Jimmer” who’s had a speech defect ever since he was abducted by an alien—chug down the brew and endure a night that’s half vision quest, half mushroom trip, with a touch of demonic possession and religious ecstasy thrown in for good measure.  They endure the flashing lights of UFOs, denatured whiskey, impossible euchre hands, a DNR ranger who’s just seen God, anxiety dreams, possession, epic flatulence, and a “bearwalk,” an evil spirit from Algonquin folklore.  The Soadys and their guests aren’t nearly as freaked out by these events as folks from under da Bridge would be; no matter how unsettling the paranormal events should be, the tone remains consistently stuck on coarse quirk, with jokes revolving around the supposed magical properties of jars of porcupine urine and the humiliation of accidentally drinking a moose testicle.  The movie’s message seems to be that in order to self-actualize and shoot a deer, it’s necessary to believe in something—anything—and it doesn’t really matter whether it’s aliens, ancient spirits, God, or the power of love.  That’s why all the supernatural occurrences that afflict the cabin are so damnably arbitrary; the trials Rueben goes through in that long night of the soul aren’t tightly tied to his psychological journey, and anyway, helpful spirits will show up at the end to solve his problem in about two minutes.  The unique Upper Peninsula flavor, deer-hunting rituals and likable rustic characters give Escanaba a lift, but the weirdness doesn’t work for the film, the comedy is gutshot and the spiritual triumph is lame.

Jeff Daniels, who grew up in Lower Michigan, not only starred, but also directed and scripted Escanaba, from his own play.  In the public mind, Daniels’ Golden Globe for The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) has long been overshadowed by the scene where he suffers sudden and severe colonic distress in Dumb and Dumber (1994).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…suggests Evil Dead II as directed by a lobotomized Garrison Keillor…”–Nathan Rabin, The Onion A.V. Club

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Wycuff,” who called it “defiantly weird” but hedged with “It probably wont make the list but it’s at least worth a review and an honorable mention.”   Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)