Reviews

The Wild Life

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 4/13/21;
Kino Lorber;
Comedy;
$24.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R.’
Stars Chris Penn, Lea Thompson, Ilan Mitchell-Smith, Jenny Wright, Eric Stoltz, Rick Moranis, Hart Bochner, Randy Quaid.

While 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High has gone on to become an iconic representation of 1980s teen cinema, screenwriter Cameron Crowe’s 1984 follow-up, The Wild Life, would find itself relegated to something of a footnote.

Though marketed as if it were another Fast Times (“… from the creators of Fast Times at Ridgemont High comes something even Faster …”), The Wild Life is more of a spiritual successor, continuing the search for zany laughs through the hijinks of driftless teenagers looking for a good time in Los Angeles. However, The Wild Life did not go on to achieve the breakout success that Fast Times did, though it has its fans.

Interestingly enough, according to the commentary track included with the Blu-ray, the genesis of Wild Life may have had less to do that re-capturing the magic of Fast Times and more with Crowe’s efforts to make a movie about The Doors frontman Jim Morrison. As the story goes, when those plans didn’t pan out, the intended script was re-tooled into The Wild Life — the most visible remnant of its former life being the Jim character played by Ilan Mitchell-Smith, a teenager with an obsession about the 1960s and the Vietnam War. A Jim Morrison poster even makes its way into the set dressings.

As for why it has toiled in relative obscurity despite the notable talent involved, well, there are a number of reasons for this. Its close association with Fast Times couldn’t have helped, but the primary culprit might have to do with an ambitious soundtrack that originally included the likes of Prince and Madonna, and a score by Eddie Van Halen. Licensing the music for home video proved too expensive given the film’s relatively light box office haul ($11 million against a $6 million budget, compared with Fast Times‘ $27 million against a $5 million budget), so Universal Studios took the unusual step of preparing an alternate soundtrack for VHS, Laserdisc and television airings — replacing most of the pop songs with Van Halen guitar riffs.

Lack of access to the original theatrical cut outside of bootleg circles certainly couldn’t have helped when it came to the ubiquity of television airings and home video releases needed to keep a film in the public consciousness (both of which helped Fast Times grow its popularity, to the point it got a spinoff TV series in 1986). Universal didn’t even release The Wild Life on DVD until 2014, and that was through its manufactured-on-demand DVD-R “Vault Series.”

Now, The Wild Life isn’t the kind of cult hit that’s going to inspire the kind of spending needed to clear up the rights issues for a new disc release in 2021; nor is Kino the kind of distributor so flush with cash that it could be expected to take up such an endeavor. Thus, Kino’s new Blu-ray Disc release of The Wild Life, to the disappointment of many of the film’s fans, contains the alternate soundtrack. Aside from this, Kino has done right by the film in finally delivering it to HD.

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The picture quality looks good for a film that probably hasn’t gotten much love in the 37 years since it was made. The visual style has a certain mid-’80s sweaty quality to it that echoes the lustful cravings of its protagonists.

Like Fast Times, The Wild Life casts a Penn in the role of a party-loving stoner with a penchant for bringing trouble to those around him. No, it’s not Sean Penn as Spicoli, but his younger brother, Chris, who is saddled with the oft-repeated catch-phrase, “It’s casual.”

Eric Stoltz plays Bill, Jim’s older brother and a recent high school graduate who has just moved into his first apartment and finds himself short on cash after the manager upsells him to a more-expensive unit. He also broke up with his still-in-high-school girlfriend, Anita (Lea Thompson), who has moved on to a fling with a neighborhood cop (Hart Bochner) who doesn’t know she’s underage, which is just as well since she doesn’t know he’s married.

The presence of Stoltz and Thompson actually make The Wild Life more significant to cinematic history that it otherwise would have been. Not long after making The Wild Life, Stoltz was cast to play Marty McFly in Back to the Future. In scouting Stoltz, the BTTF producers viewed The Wild Life and were impressed enough by Thompson’s performance that they cast her to play Marty’s mother. Ultimately, Stoltz’s interpretation of Marty didn’t match the comedic tone producers wanted, and he was famously replaced by Michael J. Fox, while Thompson remained.

As for The Wild Life, it’s a fun lark that makes for a nice companion piece to Fast Times while still highly rewatchable on its own. The film also features notable appearances by Rick Moranis just a few months after his breakout role in Ghostbusters; Ben Stein in an early role as an Army surplus clerk before his iconic appearance in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; Robert Ridgely, who is best known as the executioner in Blazing Saddles and a porn financier in Boogie Nights; Dean Devlin, later a big-time Hollywood producer of films such as Independence Day, as a liquor store clerk; Randy Quaid as a drug-adled Vietnam vet who befriends Jim; and a slew of punk rock icons, such as Lee Ving, better known acting-wise as the main dead guy in Clue.

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Kino’s Wild Life Blu-ray includes a 15-minute retrospective interview with Mitchell-Smith, who would go on to a bigger role the next year in Weird Science before dropping out of acting, but here he shares a lot of fond memories about making The Wild Life.

The aforementioned audio commentary comes courtesy of Mike McBeardo McPadden, a podcaster and author of Teen Movie Hell, joined by author and disc jockey Ian Christe. Their entertaining discussion is expectedly more focused on the historical impact of the film, some of the behind-the-scenes details, and how it compares to Fast Times. But they also recommend The Wild Life as essential viewing in any 1980s teen comedy marathon simply for how it delves into darker aspects of the lives of movie teens that don’t often get seen in other more popular movies from the time.

Rounding out the bonus materials are the film’s theatrical trailer and some radio spots.

All in all, “it’s casual.”

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