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Wild Life (1984), The
It's the summer after graduation, and Bill Conrad (Eric Stoltz) is anxious to jump into adulthood. He's saved up enough money from his job at a bowling alley to move into his own apartment, and he's already dreaming of what having a place to himself will do for his dating life. Also dreaming about it: his somewhat unreliable friend and co-worker, Tom Drake (Chris Penn), who eventually convinces Bill to let him move in to help split the rent. Although both of them dream about beautiful women, they retain feelings for their would-be girlfriends: Bill's ex, Anita (Lea Thompson), now getting frisky in the back of the donut shop where she works with a greasy cop (Hart Bochner), and Eileen (Jenny Wright), who is endlessly frustrated by the way Tom's behavior seems to blow back on her instead of him. Meanwhile, Bill's little brother Jim (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) wanders around town getting into trouble, and obsessing over details of the Vietnam war he's absorbed from his mysterious buddy Charlie.
In the supplemental features for the DVD special edition of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Ben Stein (who has a small role in the film) refers to The Wild Life as "a sequel" to Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The confusion makes sense: Cameron Crowe wrote both movies, which both follow a loose group of school acquaintances and friends on an interconnected ensemble adventure...not to mention, the prominent role for Chris Penn, brother of Sean, as a character so indebted to Jeff Spicoli he might as well wear a "Great Value" T-shirt the entire movie. Unfortunately, The Wild Life doesn't feel like it ever gelled into a coherent script, and Fast Times producer Art Linson, who took over directing duties at the last minute when someone else dropped out, can't match Amy Heckerling's skill at either the drama or the comedy.
Arguably best known for his role as Nice Guy Eddie in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, there's no denying that Penn, who tragically passed away at only 50 in 2006, was a genuine talent, and a charismatic guy (his supporting role in the original Footloose is a great example). Unfortunately, Tom Drake is a truly obnoxious character, lacking the breezy, surf's up optimism of his brother's Fast Times breakout. Spicoli might have been a fuck-up, but he was a fun one, and even showed a little bit of himbo insight when finally forced to go one-on-one with Ray Walston's Mr. Hand. Tom, on the other hand, doesn't seem to respect or understand Eileen's wishes or boundaries, threatens to destroy Bill's living situation (and saddle him with a life-destroying lawsuit), and worst of all, never learns or grows up at all, remaining a selfish asshole right through to the very end. For the most part, The Wild Life is merely unengaging and uninspired, but Tom's behavior during the climax and finale are so frustrating that the movie becomes mildly upsetting.
Of course, Tom's lack of arc is arguably part of the movie's M.O. At best, the characters have little plots with identifiable obstacles or challenges that are overcome, but they don't really change or grow, and the obstacles and challenges only fleetingly illustrate or illuminate something interesting about being on the cusp of adulthood. Bill's aggressive rush to try and be independent is the most interesting, with money strain and the unpredictability of responsibility carrying an air of familiarity, but his problems are so entangled with Tom's behavior that it feels less like insight and more like plot mechanics. Anita's tryst with David, whose schedule always serves him but leaves her waiting and lonely, rings true but never rises above the predictable beats. Other than Tom, Eileen's only real story involves her creepy boss (Rick Moranis) at an upscale fashion store in the mall, but it comes to an abrupt end and ends up feeling like half of a story. Ironically, Jim, whose plot is otherwise divorced from the rest of the characters and hardly feels necessary, ends up with the most interesting story in the movie, when Charlie finally makes an appearance in the film. It's strange to try and reconcile Randy Quaid's comic talent through the '80s, '90s, and even into the '00s with his real-life behavior afterward, but he gives a surprisingly great one-scene performance...and one without a drop of comedy in it.
If anything in The Wild Life is an unrequited win, it's the work by Don Phillips, who once again has drummed up an incredibly talented cast. It would be easy to forget that when The Wild Life was shot (presumably in 1983, ahead of its 1984 release), movies like Footloose, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, and Weird Science hadn't yet opened or were years away. The Wild Life might not be a very good vehicle for them, but Phillips' eye for the talent of the cast can't be denied. Plus, on top of the lead cast, the movie also features supporting roles from Michael Bowen, Repo Man's Dick Rude, Sherilyn Fenn, FEAR's Lee Ving, Heart's Nancy Wilson, and even future Independence Day producer Dean Devlin as a liquor store clerk. Too bad all of that effort was wasted on a movie that feels more like the crass teen sex comedy that Fast Times intentionally avoided becoming than something in the same spirit.
The Wild Life cruises onto Blu-ray with a reformatted version of the theatrical movie poster as the artwork, featuring an image of the cast staring up from the seats of a sky blue convertible. The one-disc release follows Kino Lorber Studio Classics' usual black-and-white template on the backside, and there is no insert inside the Viva Elite Blu-ray case.
The Video and Audio
The Wild Life has had a spotty home video history: the film came out on VHS, but was MIA on DVD until 2014, when Universal finally issued it on DVD-R via their Vault program. As one might expect from a Cameron Crowe production, the film has a massive soundtrack, and the DVD-R version was unable to preserve all of the songs. Thankfully, although it's not a slam dunk, Kino Lorber's 2021 release rectifies...most of these problems. The majority of the film's needle drops have been restored for the disc's DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track (the missing tracks seem to be Madonna's "Burning Up" when the guys enter the strip club, Billy Idol's "(Do Not) Stand in the Shadows", and Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe" when Jim lies down on the pavement), and generally sound pretty good, as does the dialogue and the occasional bit of action. On the other hand, the movie's 1.78:1 1080p AVC transfer leaves a little bit to be desired. As far as Universal catalog masters go, this is on the watchable end of things, but the image clearly lacks the kind of organic appearance that a brand new master would be able to provide, with film grain looking chunky and obvious signs of sharpening creating white and black haloes all over the place and flattening the image. Colors are adequate, with reds occasionally popping nicely. Ultimately, the presentation easily bests a DVD with a further revised soundtrack, and most fans will be pleased, but there's also no question The Wild Life can and should look better. Optional English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
Kino's Blu-ray of The Wild Life offers two new extras. The first is a feature-length audio commentary by writer/podcaster Mike "McBeardo" McPadden, and author/DJ Ian Christe. Those who pop in the disc will notice a dedication to McPadden, who tragically passed away in December, before the disc was released. The best thing that can be said is that McPadden's enthusiasm for both The Wild Life and the genre it exists in is well-represented by this commentary, with the two men deftly weaving scholarly factoids into a lively but casual chat. As evidenced by the review, this was not a movie I enjoyed, but I had no trouble sitting through it again with these two as my informative and enjoyable hosts.
The other extra is "Walk the Wild Side" (14:49), an interview with Ilan Mitchell-Smith. Mitchell-Smith talks about his roots in ballet, memories of director Art Linson, learning about music from Cameron Crowe, his memories of the famous ensemble cast (many of whom he only worked with briefly), memories of a half-deleted scene, two souvenirs from the set, and the factors that lead his retirement from acting. A charming piece.
Under the special features menu, there are bonus Kino trailers for The Allnighter, Hard to Hold, and North Shore. An original theatrical trailer and some radio spots for The Wild Life are also included.
ConclusionIt should be pretty obvious that my personal loyalties lie with Heckerling, whose Fast Times is probably in the top 5 all-time high school movies. The Wild Life may not canonically or even intentionally position itself as a sequel, but it's hard to imagine the results avoiding the shadow of Crowe's earlier work. For fans, Kino's presentation with the mostly-restored soundtrack, and the winning McPadden/Christe commentary, I can recommend rental.
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