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Wild Life, The (1984)
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by Jack Sommersby

"Bring Back Jeff Spicoli!"
1 stars

Pu this up against John Hughes's flawed but enjoyable debut "Sixteen Candles" that came out the same year, and it's not even a contest.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High was not only one of 1982's very best movies but the best high-school movie ever made. Its biggest asset was the acute screenplay by Cameron Crowe, who adapted his own novel he wrote after having gone undercover as a high-school student. Set in a semi-upper-middle-class Los Angeles suburb, it detailed a year in the life of a particular group of students at Ridgemont High, some sophomores, some seniors, most of whom working menial part-time jobs and going through some early aspects of adulthood in the areas of sexual orientation and financial responsibilities. It was superbly acted by a talented cast of then-unknowns including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sean Penn and Judge Reinhold, and directed with sensitivity and agility by a debuting Amy Heckerling. Now there's The Wild Life, which was also written by Crowe, and it's a real disappointment, with virtually none of the observation and wit that made its predecessor such an undiluted delight. Instead of Sean Penn's incorrigibly lovable stoner Jeff Spicolli, we get Penn's unsavory brother Christopher playing dimwitted senior Tom Drake, a trophy-winning wrestler with peroxide hair who's about as appealing as putrefied cauliflower. Instead of Reinhold's ambitious fast-food-worker Brad Hamilton, we get Eric Stoltz as bowling-alley assistant manager Bill Conrad, Tom's coworker and best friend. Instead of Leigh's sexually-blooming pizza-parlor worker Stacey Hamilton, we get Lea Thompson as donut-shop worker Anita, Bill's ex-girlfriend who's carrying on an affair with a jerk of a bushy-mustached patrol officer (he stops by during her evening shift to have quickies in the back room). It's a week till the school years starts, and the movie details their misadventures and tribulations, but they're goings-on of the largely who-cares variety. Crowe, in what we hope is merely an artistic lapse amid the quest for an easy paycheck, doesn't seem to have much affectation for his creations this time around; there's a rote, second-hand feel to the characters, and as much leniency as you might be willing to give Crowe, by the thirty-minute mark you can't get past the inescapable fact that we couldn't give a hoot about any of the people on the screen. Crude and crass, not to mention boringly obvious, The Wild Life is one depressing experience: it has so little respect for its audience and even littler regard for characterization that it alienates itself from any semblances of genuine human experience. We could be watching humanoids on a faraway planet for the all the lack of emotional investment we have in them.

Heckerling was a novice director, sure, and we were aware of her occasional missteps (though they were few and far between), but she lent Fast Times timing and control among other valuable things. Art Linson, who produced Fast Times and whose only directing credit is the abysmal Bill Murray-as-Hunter S. Thompson Where the Buffalo Roam, hasn't so much as a speck of discernible ability. Modulating and shaping a simple scene are beyond him, and so is giving a movie something of a visual life, with unbelievably cruddy lighting and insult-to-composition framing lending the proceedings all the vivacity of an industrial-training video. (In a scene in a strip club, we're not aware of the G-strings and boobs so much as we are of the camera never managing to be in the right damn place.) Are Tom and his equally-cretinous wrestling buddies really intended to wow us over with their animalistic irreverence, and be seen as superior to the earnest Bill just because he's a responsible-minded nondescript? We respond more to Anita because of the talented Thompson, who was wonderful as the aspiring music student in the fine high-school drama All the Right Moves the year before; it's too bad, though, that her character has been made unbelievably obtuse -- if we can spot that her new lover's a stinker from the get-go, why can't she? (The gruesome Penn, who becomes monotonous and grating by the fifteen-minute mark, is beneath comment.) The only performance that has any weight to it, that breaks stereotype and emerges as a genuine characterization, is Ilan Mitchell-Smith's as Jim, Bill's rebellious fifteen-year-old brother who chain-smokes Marlboro Reds, wears camouflage pants, and carries around a boom box blaring heavy-metal music. He's about to enter his sophomore year, and thinks his obsession with every detail of the history of the Vietnam War gives him a superior knowingness among his peers; his having seen Apocalypse Now eleven times he wears like a badge of honor, and it's only when he's set straight about the unglamorous aspects of war by a reclusive, heroin-addicted Vietnam-vet friend (a touching Randy Quaid) that something finally breaks through his armor. (It also helps that Mitchell-Smith's afforded a satisfying final scene: on the first day of school, when Jim drops his put-upon airs and apologizes for accidentally knocking the books out of the hands of a girl he's developed a crush on, it's kinda sweet.) The Wild Life hasn't so much a single line of witty dialogue, not a memorable song on its soundtrack, and even though Eddie Van Halen receives credit for it, even the music score is no great shakes. It's Fast Times minus the entertainment value, not to mention the brains.

You'd be better off spending your time in study hall.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=25379&reviewer=327
originally posted: 07/11/13 08:39:55
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  28-Sep-1984 (R)

  N/A (18)

  N/A (M)

Directed by
  Art Linson

Written by
  Cameron Crowe

  Christopher Penn
  Eric Stoltz
  Lea Thompson
  Ilan Mitchell-Smith
  Jenny Wright

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