In honor of Ray Liotta’s untimely death I recently watched Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, a mid-80s film starring Melanie Griffith, Jeff Daniels and Ray Liotta. Notably, this dark comedy not only features a critique of finance capital careerism but lingers on the eccentric details of an America that began to erode with the advent of the Reagan Era and at present no longer exists.
Daniels plays Charlie, a yuppie schmuck whose rising fortunes in the company counterpoint his diminished personal life. Griffith is Lulu (Audrey), who conscripts him into her chaotic plan to dazzle her mother and former high school classmates with the illusion of an all-American life that includes a successful (normie) husband, a suburban homestead, and the imminent prospect of children. Unfortunately for both of them Audrey’s ex-boyfriend Ray (Liotta) arrives at their 10th anniversary high school reunion with every intention of picking up a relationship interrupted by his incarceration for armed robbery. Liotta’s Ray is sociopathic and seductive, not only prone to violent outbursts but capable of moving (and calculated) appeals to his victims’ trust.
I’ve had more than one female friend who found Griffith’s screen presence irritating. Her elocution skirts the fringes of baby talk. In the earlier phases of her career, at least, she hardly ever wears a bra. Yet as I was watching her entice Charlie and handle Ray I was struck by both her weird resemblance to Kristin Stewart and the way she dramatizes the plight of a woman whose vivacity and beauty renders her the target of male obsession.
Two linguistic moments stand out in this otherwise action-oriented film. The first, uttered by a man who offers Pepto Bismal to a very hungover Charlie, runs thus: “it’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion.” Eventually Charlie repeats this bromide to a colleague in the film’s final moments as he prepares to abandon his career. The substance of that phrase clearly valorizes the joys of ordinary life over yuppie hubris.
The second comes in the form of a spray-painted tag on the building housing Audrey’s recently vacated apartment: “Speculators Out.” If such a statement counts as subtext then it’s clear that Something Wild ultimately has the neoliberal turn in its sights. And, oddly, it’s Liotta’s character who shoulders the baggage. Ray’s self-satisfying violence, his endless concern for himself, resembles nothing so much as the toxic narcissism of Late Capitalism’s vaunted heroes. His certainty and ambition constitute a form of psychosis sharing more in common with a smug, entitled stockbroker than a desperate, love-struck ex-con.
In sum, Liotta– the foundling-cum-movie-star,–whose No Escape I watched in the Sarasota Mall after smoking a bunch of dope, demonstrates yet again with Something Wild that he was truly a king among men.