Comedies with Consequences: ‘Something Wild’ (1986) and ‘I Served the King of England’ (2006)

In 1986, Orion Entertainment released Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (1986). Twenty years later, Sony Pictures Classics released Jirí Menzel’s I Served the King of England (2006) in America.

On the surface, these films seem to have very little in common. In Something Wild, straight-laced businessman Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels, who based his performance on Jack Lemmon and Dick Van Dyke) gets swept along in reckless con artist Lulu’s (Melanie Griffith) increasingly dangerous schemes. Things take a turn for the worst when they meet Lulu’s violent husband Ray (Ray Liotta in his feature film debut). In I Served the King of England, Jan Díte (Ivan Barnev) does everything he can to achieve his dreams of being a millionaire. He does not realize the consequences of his actions until he reflects on it as an old man (Oldrich Kaiser). They do not share a similar premise, characters, or story. However, both films start out as wacky comedies before drifting into darker territory that questions human nature.

Observations – Something Wild

Something Wild represents Jonathan Demme’s feature film career better than any other movie he has ever made. It represents his comedy work (Melvin and Howard (1980), Married to the Mob (1988)). It also signals his future character pieces (Rachel Getting Married (2008), A Master Builder (2013), Ricki and the Flash (2015)) and thrillers (Silence of the Lambs (1991), The Manchurian Candidate (2004)) and hints at his more serious-minded projects (Philadelphia (1993), Beloved (1998)). Even his music documentaries (Stop Making Sense (1984), Storefront Hitchcock (1998)) factor in here, with his choice of soundtrack. It contains the beginnings of his use of POV with two shots. Every decision in this movie encapsulates his career as a whole.

Characterization

While it has a wild execution, Something Wild has the plot of a conventional romantic comedy. Each character and plot point is much darker and more bizarre, with the violent climax being the darkest part. The Charlie Driggs character is pretty standard in these sorts of movies: the hapless everyman who gets caught up in a nightmarish situation.

The Lulu character comes across as much scarier than many of the other characters in these types of movies. While critics often list this character as an example of the “manic pixie dream girl” archetype, she also comes across as much less quirky than those other characters (the term was coined to comment on the Kirsten Dunst’s eccentric love interest in Elizabethtown (2005)). In most movies like this, the love interest tends to be quirky, yet fairly benign.  Lulu steals from people and has a violent ex-husband who will not leave her alone. Unlike the worst examples of that archetype, she also seems to primarily want Charlie by her side so she can make a good impression on her mother and high school class reunion. However, when Charlie reveals true feelings for her, things become more complicated for him.

One of the joys of Something Wild is how much detail Demme puts into every scene. Just looking at the art direction demands more than one viewing. The film also included clues to a darker underbelly and rewards the viewer upon re-watching it. Every object and interaction in this movie has a reason for being in this densely-layered film. Scenes and props will often begin as light jokes and then transform into something far more sinister in the second half.

Tonal Dissonance

Like most films with a more unwieldy tone, the marketing department did not seem to know how to sell Something Wild, so they decided to sell it primarily as a wacky comedy, even though its strength lies less in its comedy and more in its characters. Even the Criterion Collection’s re-release trailer plays up the goofy comedy elements (although it includes hints at the more sinister nature of the film).

In 1988, Demme would make Married to the Mob with Michelle Pfieffer and Matthew Modine. Married to the Mob uses the same type of story as Something Wild (a straight-edge character sets out on a dangerous journey with an eccentric wild card) but as a much safer mob farce. Every character and plot point becomes more of a comedy cutout. For example, the Ray Liotta character changes from a violent thug into Tony “the Tiger” Russo, a more pathetic character played by Dean Stockwell. While a fairly decent movie with some great scenes and performances, it loses most of the edge that made Something Wild interesting.

Observations – I Served the King of England

Like Something Wild, I Served the King of England portrays events with two different tones: first as light comedy, then as tragedy. While Díte truly does despicable things, we do see him try to make amends and help out others. As the audience, we are forced to question what the lead character has done in the second half. I Served the King of England starts out as a sex comedy in which the hero sleeps his way to the top of the hotel business. Imagine The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) if the Ralph Fiennes character were a young man willing to screw anybody over.

In terms of tone, I Served the King of England feels more precise than Something Wild. It has more stylistic tricks to illustrate the character’s viewpoint. At one point, Menzel models a scene after a silent movie. In Something Wild, the transition is rather subtle in many ways. However, in I Served the King of England, the shifts in tone feel more deliberate and explicit. The audience never has to guess what movie they are in, unlike Something Wild, where it might take more than one viewing to fully appreciate the true nature of the film.

Women and Politics

If there’s one major narrative flaw in I Served the King of England, it’s that it has no three-dimensional female characters. Every woman in this movie represents the time period they live in more than they actually feel like a fully realized character. The prostitutes and maids in Díte’s youth (Petra Hrebícková plays the most memorable of them) represent the reckless abandon of the time period, while his wife Liza (Julia Jentsch) represents the country under Nazi occupation. When Díte is an old man, the free-spirited promiscuous Marcela (Zuzana Fialová) represents the repressive power of Communism on the people of Czechoslovakia.

Many filmmakers of the Czech new wave dealt fervently with issues of censorship and government interference with art. Menzel’s contemporary Miloš Forman built his career around outlandish characters who fight against a repressive system, whether it was Amadeus, Larry Flynt, Andy Kaufman, or R.P. McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Menzel utilized a subtler approach in his Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains (1966), in which he portrays Nazis as stand-ins for the Communist government. In that film, women also are a small part of the larger commentary. While women do not have great roles in this film, they serve the commentary of the story.

How They Connect

Both films start out as comedies only to transform into something deeper and darker. I Served the King of England starts out as a lighter comedy only to transform into a dark satire on ambition. Every shot, prop, and idea adds up to illustrate the tragedy of a man’s obsession with being wealthy, even when it comes at the expense of others.

Something Wild is one of the few film comedies that look at the real consequences of different lifestyles. It looks at what it means to live life completely safe and by the book, and also what it means to live recklessly. Unlike other comedies in which characters need to accept one viewpoint fully, this film settles somewhere in the middle. It illustrates how somebody can end up miserable in both lifestyles.

However, this is not the only reading of the film. In Dennis Lehane’s commentary for Trailers from Hell, he refers to the second half of the movie as “a dark look at everything that everything that went wrong under Reagan.” Lehane sees the Ray Liotta character as representing the average man screwed over by the actions of corporate men like Charlie Driggs. This reading paints Ray in a more sympathetic light than the film’s cinematography and editing does.

The Farrelly brothers are big fans of this film and it shows in most of their early work (Dumb and Dumber (1994), Kingpin (1996), There’s Something About Mary (1998)). However, their comedies do not question comedy as a format like Something Wild does. Unlike most comedies, it asks what would happen if every character was more complicated or potentially dangerous than the average comedy character.

Conclusion

Both these films take a style of comedy and twist it to question the more sinister and tragic sides of human nature. Unlike most comedies and satires, these films use tonal shifts and darker material to illustrate the downsides of mindsets that most comedies embrace.

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