Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Heath Holland On...The Wild Life

Does this mostly-forgotten gem from 1984 live up to its pedigree or deserve obscurity?

On the surface, 1984’s The Wild Life is a largely forgettable teen comedy cut from the same mold as dozens of other mid-‘80s fare. But dig a little deeper and it turns out to be notable for its star power and production. Angsty stalwarts Eric Stoltz and Lea Thompson are here a few years before Some Kind of Wonderful. Chris Penn was just coming off the success of Footloose when this film was released, and Jenny Wright appears one year before St. Elmo’s Fire. Ilan Mitchell-Smith also stars the year before he found wider success as one of the leads in Weird Science. Each one of these actors is linked to at least one huge‘80s classic. Even Hart Bochner, the slimy guy from Die Hard, is here.

More importantly to me, however, is the fact that The Wild Life is the only film Cameron Crowe was involved with between 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High and his directorial debut with 1989’s Say Anything. Rarely shown on television and, until recently, unavailable on DVD, this is Cameron Crowe’s long lost movie.
Crowe did not direct The Wild Life, but he did write it. Art Linson, the producer of Fast Times, made his second and final directorial effort with this film (his earlier effort was 1980’s Where the Buffalo Roam, which JB recommended here). Because of all of these factors, this movie is sometimes referred to as the unofficial sequel to Fast Times, which I’m not sure it really is.

Like Fast Times, this film focuses on the daily lives of a group of teenagers. Some of them are still navigating the waters of high school while others, like Stoltz, Lea Thompson and Chris Penn, seem to have high school behind them and are trying to figure out what to do next while they live “the wild life.” In that sense, the movie is traditional teen fare.

But this film doesn’t walk the line between comedy and darkness with the same finesse that Fast Times manages to, making a truly uneven viewing experience. On one hand, these characters are angry and are looking to break away from the establishment of school and their home life to be free and party. On the other hand, the movie occasionally asks us to care about the very human mistakes that some of the characters make. This should be easier than the movie makes it.

Take Chris Penn’s character, for example. He’s constantly drinking and smoking, trying to get into every girl’s pants (even though he professes to love only one woman), slacking off at his job, and making a mess of everything. The film sometimes comes close to showing him as a tragic character who can’t work out his life. Yet at other times, we’re supposed to celebrate him as a hero. I don’t know what the movie is telling me to feel toward him. Sometimes he’s a prick, but the movie tells me he’s awesome. I don’t get it. Pricks are awesome?
And Eric Stoltz’s character is really just an avatar for anyone in the audience. He goes on no real journey nor has no real purpose in the story. He’s redheaded teen #1. I mean, I know this was an early Stoltz role, but there’s just not much there. I can’t decide if Cameron Crowe’s script intends all of these things and is presenting the viewer with ambiguity that the director white-washed over with pop songs and montages or if I’m really supposed to be rooting for characters that I don’t really like.

I’m also confused by the split between the age groups in the movie. We spend most of our time following 18 or 19 year olds as they wonder what to do next, but we also spend significant time with squeaky-voiced 13 or 14 year olds as they make their way IN to the high school scene. It doesn’t really work for me.

Another odd thing about the movie is that it’s FULL of cigarette porn. I can’t recall any other movie being filled with such a love of the cigarette. Characters don’t just smoke. They do cigarette stunts. At least two cigarettes get eaten while still lit. One gets put out on a character’s hand. One gets lit with a lighter and an aerosol can. It’s truly bizarre: I’m not anti-smoking, but the lengths the movie goes through to make cigarettes look super-cool is CRAZY. Ilan Mitchell-Smith walks around looking like a tiny, smoking Tony Danza. Hang on. I need a cigarette.
I don’t mean to sound like I’m down on The Wild Life. I actually really like the movie and I think there’s a lot to appreciate. Chris Penn (rest in peace) is simply a natural. I suspect he was cast because his brother Sean made such as splash the last time Linson and Crowe jammed on a movie but was perhaps more affordable and available, but Chris does a really great job. He’s at ease in front of the camera and conveys that “real” quality that is so hard to produce on camera. You either have it or you don’t, and Chris Penn had it.

Lea Thompson is always great but here seems underused. She’s was one of those actresses in the ‘80s that could really convey hurt and vulnerability, which she does here. But her character doesn’t get nearly as much of the on-screen action as some of her co-stars and, like I do with Stoltz, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a different, better movie with them happening off-camera that I’m missing because this film just isn’t interested in their story. Maybe that movie is Some Kind of Wonderful.

Like all Cameron Crowe projects, The Wild Life has an interesting soundtrack that he seems to have had a heavy hand in producing (Crowe co-produced the film with Linson). The ‘80’s pop of Bananarama and Huey Lewis and the News are to be expected; but when you hear Steppenwolf, Buffalo Springfield, and Jimi Hendrix you feel right at home in Cameron Crowe’s world. His movies may vary in quality but his soundtracks are incredibly consistent.

Oddest of all to me is the fact that Eddie Van Halen scored the film’s incidental music. Whenever a found song is not playing there’s bending or tapping on electric guitar strings courtesy of Van Halen himself. You can totally hear hit songs that hadn’t been written yet in the riffs. I counted at least three.
Now here’s the rub: The Wild Life was released on VHS and laserdisc but never made it to DVD. Like they do so many other things, music rights messed up the DVD release and some bands didn’t want their songs in the movie without huge licensing fees. Honestly, I’m not even totally convinced that the laserdisc copy that I saw (it’s on Youtube) has all of the original music in it. I think it does, but reports are varied.

In the summer of 2013 the film was finally made available on DVD using Universal’s “Vault Series” label. For twenty bucks you get a burned DVD-R with no menu and no special features. To rub salt in the wound, a lot of the music from the original film has been replaced. For a movie like The Wild Life, perhaps that’s as close to redemption as it will ever get. It’s just a shame to me, though, because Cameron Crowe has established himself as a major director; all of the movies he’s been involved with (aside from this one) have been given pretty great home releases filled with commentary tracks and documentaries. I’d love to hear what he has to say about some of the decisions made behind the film and how he feels about his screenplay in retrospect.
In the end, The Wild Life is a very flawed film with a production that’s more interesting than the movie itself, though it certainly isn’t bad. I enjoy it because it allows me to see the progression of a writer and director that I love. I have no way of knowing for certain, but I have to imagine that this film was a valuable stepping stone for Crowe on his path to some of my favorite movies.


  1. I'm sure the VHS has all the original music. :) Probably can score that for twenty five cents and then burn your own DVD of it.

    This is the one Cameron Crowe film I haven't seen, and with that cast, had always wanted to but for some reason it always escaped me.

  2. You'd think you could score the VHS for cheap, right? Nope. Used is 10 bucks, new is 90. It's a real shame.

  3. Hey, thanks for reminding me of one of the late-night favourites of my youth (because nudity?) I had completely forgotten about. I didn't realize Cameron Crowe was involved but I can totally see it now - too bad it's so difficult to find a decent copy because I'd love to watch it again!

  4. pause the youtube movie at 13:39 ...who was that young actress ??? She looks so familiar... it's driving me crazy !!! Anyone... anyone?

  5. LOVED this movie when I was 14 and the soundtrack introduced me to all kinds of 1960"s music - it totally make sense now!