Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Heath Holland On...The Wild Life
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.