Something Wild and After Hours: 80s New York at Its Peak

[written by Jack Draper]

When we think of a typical protagonist, we think of someone we aspire to be like and not relate to, such as James Bond or Captain America who are rooted in the idea of good and uphold conflict with the bad. In the 80s we began to see more flawed leading men like Die Hard’s John McClane or Lethal Weapon’s Martin Riggs who are flawed and susceptible to doubt or internal struggles. Considering the work of Martin Scorsese and the late Jonathan Demme, they brought us characters who are relatable, the average man caught up in the wrong place wrong time in 1985’s After Hours and 1986’s Something Wild. Comedies that walk the dangerous tightrope of mature but absurd, taboo and craft that still contain even more potency now than they did in the mid-80s. 

Something Wild focuses on a woman, Lulu Hankel (Melanie Griffith), taking a chance on a yuppie, Charlie Riggs (Jeff Daniels), to show him the kind of life he is missing by being such a square. Lulu understands that kind of existence, putting on a facade to her parents and high school reunion that she and Charlie are happily married. Charlie is the kind of guy who has lived up to society’s standards to such a height that he forgets the idea of fun and can’t live by taking chances – at least, chances of substance and inconsequence. For instance, he would be the kind of kid to take two pieces of Halloween candy when the sign says to only take one. 

His rebellion is controlled and sculpted, and Lulu sees him take this to its fullest potential when he leaves without paying his restaurant tab. It’s only when we meet Ray (Ray Liotta) that we see notice Lulu lives in a facade of her own, in that her name isn’t actually Lulu, its Audrey, and she is fleeing from Ray, her husband, who turns out to be a dangerous criminal. Unlike the first half, the second becomes a cat and mouse thriller of Charlie and Lulu escaping from Ray’s wrath with a better understanding of each other in the process. Demme is such a humanist that he believes good can defeat evil, even when it isn’t a far reach from what America has to offer. 

When taking After Hours into consideration, we follow Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) just trying to make his way home after a series of unfortunate events in SoHo. When meeting Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) in a coffee shop after exchanging phone numbers, things start to escalate and coincidences repeatedly emerge over one night deemed “after hours” by one character in a dinner. Scorsese’s film gets weirder as the night goes on, something that is relatable, and when we get to 4 or 5 am, reality seems altered thus giving heightening the farce. 

There are no tittle cards to mark the a timeline, but the gradual escalation of absurdity is the tool that keeps up the momentum. I’ve seen After Hours maybe three times now, but I still find the quirkiness inventive like I’m seeing it for the first time again, like the dancing cashier in the restaurant when Paul and Marcy meet or the mouse traps going off in Julie’s (Teri Garr) apartment. It’s these idiosyncratic touches that reward rewatches, signaling a similar paranoid vibe as Paul had. 

Speaking of Paul Hackett, he and Charlie Riggs do share some similarities even though Scorsese and Demme have differing interests in how to use them. With Charlie, it’s to show him what he’s missing in life, and with Paul, it’s to give him a taste of carelessness. Charlie takes note of the exciting cultures and classes that make up America as he descends into the trip to Pennsylvania; while Paul is just annoyed and tired. Both of them are taken on adventures they’ll never forget, to take them out of their banal lives for once, reminding them that exciting things happen in the world outside them. They’re almost interchangeable, in fact – white guys with corporate jobs who take a chance with a girl (Griffith’s Lulu and Arquette’s Marcy – soon to be defined at the hipster) who breaks them out of their shell, even they look like they’re fitting a certain type with thirty years of retrospect. It’s an achievement of molding together arthouse and slapstick; Demme and Scorsese do so well to create something unique in the mid-80s. 

Even though Something Wild merely bookends itself with New York City, I’ve always thought of it as a New York movie, unlike After Hours, which takes place entirely in New York City. It might be because Scorsese and Demme are both New Yorkers (Scorsese from Queens and Demme from Long Island) so their love for the city bleeds though regardless of screentime. They understand the culture, the vibrancy of weirdness, and the need to capture the city at an ever-evolving rate. Even when people like Charlie and Paul dominate New York, the way the city interacts with them makes everything more unpredictable, with the new culture subsets colliding all at once. 

In the eyes of Demme, New York is full of vibrancy and exciting walks of life. Even though Something Wild takes place during the day and After Hours is all at night, it communicates how much these two notice about the city, despite neither of them having a hand in the script. (E. Max Frye wrote Wild and Joseph Minion wrote Hours) Despite the contentment either filmmaker has for the city at this time, it’s clear that this is the time in their careers where they graduate to becoming more mature and respected, with Scorsese soon to make The Last Temptation of Christ and Demme on his way to The Silence of the Lambs.  

The mood is further emphasized by the soundtracks, which Demme commits to “Wild Thing” by The Troggs acting as a motif. Especially in one uplifting scene where Lulu picks up some hitchhikers with no foreboding danger – they all just harmonize in song with Charlie having no worries in the world. Then Scorsese, who is so infamous for his use of soundtracks but instead uses Howard Shore‘s score as a ticking clock. The score becomes more chaotic, acting as something to ring in the back of the audience’s head just as much as it is for Paul as the night goes on. It’s a perfect score to a very specific tone that Scoresese was trying to accomplish here, creating even more paranoia without overdoing it. 

While at first glance, Scorsese and Demme have separate sensibilities, they mine the modern yuppie nightmare at the right moment with just enough of the craft so their films are taken seriously. The idea that we should embrace that which we least expect is what both films are particularly focusing on, and why they’ve stood the test of time. Tormenting these guys is so enjoyable, it can be adapted into today’s cinema, and the Paul or Charlie archetype can be put through the wringer as intensely as we see here.

Essays

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