Friday, September 12, 2008
THE WILD LIFE was the first script Cameron Crowe wrote after the success of FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH and I may have watched it at least as much as the more famous of the two when I was a kid. But, as it happens sometimes, it’s pretty much been forgotten about over the years. Even the official Cameron Crowe website seems to have next to nothing about it. It’s actually not that bad a movie and even if it isn’t in the class of FAST TIMES it still doesn’t quite deserve to have its very existence wiped away. There’s an aimlessness to some of it that seems to capture those nights when you’re a teenager and there’s nothing to do but wander around the town you live in. Watching it again also reminded me how cute Jenny Wright was and that she slightly resembles a long-forgotten high school crush. There absolutely is some stuff of worth in there, but THE WILD LIFE is unfortunately too uneven to really be called a success. The ad campaign, along with the casting of one of the leads, tried to paint it as a semi-sequel to FAST TIMES, but though all these years later that film remains potent, THE WILD LIFE hasn’t aged nearly as well.
While FAST TIMES was set over the course of a school year, THE WILD LIFE is set during that one lazy, last week of summer before school starts again. The loose plot focuses on Bill Conrad (Eric Stoltz) who is looking to step out on his own by moving into his first apartment (for Crowe fans, there’s an early version of some of his own preoccupations going on here), his co-worker wrestler/party animal Tom Drake (Christopher Penn is what is meant to be the scene stealing role like his brother played in FAST TIMES), ex-girlfriend Anita (Lea Thompson), Tom Drake’s sometime-girlfriend Eileen (Jenny Wright) and Bill’s younger brother, Vietnam-obsessed Jim (Ilan Mitchell- Smith). Anita is having a secret affair with a cop (Hart Bochner), Eileen is trying to get Tom to leave her alone while dealing with her snippy boss (Rick Moranis with funny hair) and Bill is forced by a higher-than-expected rent to ask Tom to be his roommate, which of course leads to trouble.
THE WILD LIFE deals with characters more than plot which would be fine but it never seems to find its footing. FAST TIMES was funnier even while this film seems to go more consciously for ‘wacky’ situations and it also handled the more serious moments in a more credible, sensitive manner as well. There’s a feeling with director Amy Heckerling’s style in FAST TIMES that she’s just letting stuff happen organically but here under the direction of Art Linson (better known as a producer; his only other directorial effort was WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM) everything seems consciously more staged, as if blatantly trying to capitalize on what worked in that movie but not pulling it off. It certainly follows up on the earlier films themes of kids trying to grow up too fast while dealing with jobs and relationships, but it never connects like it should. Complex manager Robert Ridgley (The Colonel James in BOOGIE NIGHTS) shows Eric Stoltz his potential apartment, a depressing singles pad in “Club Horizon”, selling it as “The Wild Life”. It looks great to the Stoltz character as it might to anyone on their own for the first time but is really just a sad, dingy place. A better movie could have done something with this idea, but THE WILD LIFE is too concerned with being a wacky teen romp to linger on such ideas.
In spite of being sold as a comedy, it’s actually kind of a grim, depressing movie if you think about it—Bill Conrad is a pushover, Tom Drake is a bully, Jim spends most of his time obsessing over Vietnam and idolizing a vet (Randy Quaid) that a kid his age shouldn’t be associating with, Anita is carrying on a depressing affair with a cop and Eileen keeps getting harassed by guys who don’t deserve her. Since being a teenager is pretty grim and depressing anyway this doesn’t really bother me, but the movie seems just content to just cut to the next scene and play the next song instead of dealing with any of the consequences of what’s happening (at least the songs are good). There are moments throughout which probably made me watch it multiple times years ago—the five orders of fries Penn and his wrestling buddies order, the aimlessness of some of the Ilan Mitchell-Smith scenes, Jenny Wright’s character dealing with her insecurities—and the nature of its tone may make it slightly more realistic than the John Hughes films that were becoming popular at the time, though that in itself doesn’t necessarily make it better. It’s not really bad. It’s just kind of lacking.
The worst stuff in the movie feels like it’s really straining to pander to its audience, like the climactic party, but the low point is a long strip club scene shot in such a dull style that it’s almost like they wanted to get the coverage as fast as possible and get out since they were so embarrassed. The one thing in the movie that people who haven’t seen it since the 80s remember is Penn’s ever-present rejoinder “It’s casual” which seems to be straining a little too hard to be a catchphrase. On the other hand, everyone in the world seems to remember it. For all I know, I’ve said it before. So maybe it really does work.
Eric Stoltz is presumably the Crowe surrogate here but he’s hampered by being written as way too wishy-washy, making him someone difficult to sympathize with. He’s not even clearly defined—if he’s going to college or has any aspirations beyond getting his own place we never hear about it. And he broke up with Lea Thompson? We’re supposed to relate to that? (They’d work together again in SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL) When he invites Penn to move into his new place to save on rent, it immediately pushes the film into sitcom land and it’s easy to lose patience with the character when his new roommate walks all over him. Penn’s Tom Drake even says “You knew I partied before you asked me to move in here,” which is just about the most reasonable thing the character says the entire movie. The interesting thing is that Chris Penn is really good in the role—he was a terrific actor—but the fact that the character is such a jerk makes it problematic considering he’s supposed to be the fun lead of the film. Part of what made Sean Penn’s Spicoli so memorable was how he just wandered through scenes he showed up in and we never got the chance to get tired of him. Tom Drake has to keep way too much of the movie on his shoulders and it doesn’t work. Ilan Mitchell-Smith, who’d star in WEIRD SCIENCE the next year, pretty much nails his character. I almost wish that he were given more of a real storyline, but it makes sense that he’s allowed to just wander around the movie in a more grounded, serious tone than FAST TIMES ever did.
The best performance of the film is easily Jenny Wright, best remembered as the lead in NEAR DARK but also in THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP and ST. ELMO’S FIRE, sadly missing from the industry for years now. Her scenes with best friend Lea Thompson are obviously this film’s version of Phoebe Cates and Jennifer Jason Leigh and, to give credit to this film, it never feels like a retread of that dynamic. Wright is so good (“I’m not getting married until I’m at least 35.”), making such an impression that it’s too bad the character has to deal with such a jerk. Since her character has to provide some nudity as Penn climbs up to her bedroom window, though it’s probably a body double, it feels a little like the movie is undeserving of her as well. What I’m saying is, Jenny Wright is missed. Plenty of other familiar faces turn up throughout including Michael Bowen (recently seen on LOST), Sherilyn Fenn, Lee Ving and playing a surplus salesman in his first film, Ben Stein. Future INDEPENDENCE DAY producer Dean Devlin plays a Liquor Store Clerk and I thought somebody in the final party scene looked a lot like Ron Wood so imagine my surprise when it turned out to actually be Ron Wood. The soundtrack, it has to be said, contains lots of good songs from the time and even has a score co-composed by “Edward” Van Halen, which will probably make the film more interesting to somebody out there.
THE WILD LIFE isn’t one of those movies that has aged well enough that I’m going to want to revisit it all that much after this but it is interesting as a companion piece to FAST TIMES and as an early Cameron Crowe screenplay. Maybe it would work best for completists of Crowe, Jenny Wright, Eddie Van Halen or some of the other people involved. It’s not that good, but I don’t really mind it and it does take me back to an earlier time in my life when there was always that hope that maybe I’d get a girlfriend who looked like Jenny Wright. It never happened, but I’ll get over it. It’s casual.