Saturday, August 27, 2011

Not So Obscure Trailer, but Still MIA on DVD: The Wild Life (1984, Art Linson) OR..."It's casual."

Most likely a victim of short-sighted music licensing agreements, The Wild Life remains m.i.a. on DVD shelves nearly 15 years into the format's lifespan.  "Even faster" than Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Wild Life was written by Fast Times scribe Cameron Crowe and directed by Art Linson, who produced the earlier film.  Something of a quasi-sequel to Fast Times, its primary protagonist is Bill Conrad (Fast Times alumnus Eric Stoltz), a recent Los Angeles-area high school grad whose main goal within the film's timeline is moving into and maintaining an apartment in a singles complex (managed, incidentally, by the late, great Robert Ridgely).  Problems arise when Bill can't make rent on his own and must enlist a roommate (a wild Christopher Penn) to share the burden.

The film famously--or, in the minds of most critics in 1984, infamously--co-stars Christopher Penn as wrestling star, party animal, and all around goofball Tom Drake.  At the time, most observers couldn't get past the fact that Penn's role was a rather transparent attempt to create another Jeff Spicoli, the character made legendary by older brother Sean in Fast Times.  No, Drake is no Spicoli or Blutarsky, and his "It's casual" catchphrase did not enter the lexicon as "Hey bud, let's party" did, but Chris Penn brings a great energy to the part and gets laughs from me whenever I revisit the film.

With this film, veteran producer Linson makes one of only two trips behind the camera (earlier helming Where the Buffalo Roam) and I can't help but think that he came into to replace another director...Crowe, perhaps?  Since the film is rarely mentioned by Crowe or any of the principals, which also include Lea Thompson, Ilan Mitchell-Smith, and Jenny Wright, production back-stories are scant.  By no means a classic, The Wild Life, like its predecessor, does boast a fine acting ensemble (more great work from Fast Times casting director Don Phillips) with Hart Bochner, Rick Moranis, Randy Quaid, the aforementioned Ridgely, Sherilyn Fenn, Michael Bowen, Ben Stein, Jack Kehoe, Fear frontman and '80s stalwart Lee Ving, Predator Kevin Peter Hall, and Tony Montana "yes man" Angel Salazar ("Tony, open the door!!!") filling out the cast.  They're thrust into many stock situations, culminating with the type of house party blowout that featured in so many teen comedies of the time.  Much of what seemed very fresh just two years earlier with Fast Times, is decidedly less revelatory here, with an air of been there done that.

That's not to say there aren't some very original creations in Crowe's script with Mitchell-Smith's Vietnam-obsessed teen taking top prize in this category.  In a plot development that would probably have current studio execs nervous, Mitchell-Smith and his sidekick (Brin Berliner) visit the decrepit pad of a Vietnam vet (Randy Quaid) more than likely suffering from PTSD.  In what may be the film's most affecting and effective moment, Quaid tells the kid in no uncertain terms that he's lucky to have missed Vietnam and to appreciate the preservation of his average suburban existence.  I have to believe that Mitchell-Smith's Jim Conrad is inspired by the late Chris Penn's own teenage years, a time in which he soaked up any and all Vietnam minutia he could while making a Vietnam-set Super 8 film (said film featured boyhood pals Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez in its cast).  Sadly, the world lost the youngest Penn way too soon...based on the bulk of his performances and his youthful forays into filmmaking, it's clear he had a lot more to offer, more than he was usually given credit for anyway.

The soundtrack that is most likely keeping The Wild Life from DVD and Blu-ray includes an entirely original instrumental score by Eddie Van Halen (with music that foreshadows some future tunes such as "Right Now") and pop songs by Madonna, Buffalo Springfield, Billy Idol, Human League, Bananarama, Steppenwolf, Huey Lewis and the News, Peter Case, The Three O'Clock, Little Richard, and others.  Earlier home video versions omitted some of these songs, as many MCA / Universal releases of the era were wont to do, and had a "Home Video Version" tag printed on the back cover.  The original theatrical version has aired on Encore in recent years, however.

 Chris Penn with then girlfriend Sherilyn Fenn in May '84.

It's no Fast Times and, in fact, it ain't faster, clocking in a full six minutes longer, but for those '80s nostalgists, like me, who prefer to see the decade through a non-Hughes prism, The Wild Life remains essential viewing...if you can get a hold of it.


Unknown said...

Wow, I haven't thought about this film in ages. You're right, though, Chris Penn's manic energy carries us through the film as by his sheer will. There is something infectious and just plain goofy about his character that works. Whenever I think about this film and Penn's character I think about how he wouldn't have been out of place BACHELOR PARTY, starring Tom Hanks and Adrian Zmed.

As for Art Linson, that man should never be allowed in a director's chair. He did a real hack job on WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM and demonstrated little to no affinity for Hunter S. Thompson. That is redeemed only by Bill Murray's deranged performance.

Ned Merrill said...


Yes, Penn definitely fits in with the ragtag gang in BACHELOR PARTY, though he would have been too young. Man, I need to watch that film again..."Let's have a bachelor party with chicks and guns and fire trucks and hookers and drugs and booze!"

There is a sad undertone when viewing THE WILD LIFE today given Penn's untimely passing and Jenny Wright's mysterious disappearance from the industry...I've read hints of a breakdown of some kind and that she lives with her mother.

I admit that I still have not seen WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM. It's pitiful critical reputation and it own soundtrack troubles on home video (also an MCA / Universal release) scared me away.

Unknown said...

Ah, BACHELOR PARTY... a guilty pleasure to be sure. Hanks so brutally unfunny, actually being upstaged by Adrian Zmed. You gotta love it. Such a shockingly un-PC film that even outdoes some of the grossout films of today. I mean, a donkey snorting coke?! Wow...

Yeah, I miss Chris Penn, too. Sometimes I'll catch him in RESERVOIR DOGS on TV and watch his scenes with Michael Madsen. Man, they played so well off each other.

BUFFALO ROAM is worth watching for Hunter Thompson diehards only. It is pretty awful but I have sick fascination with it, if only for Murray who is his usual awesome self but Peter Boyle was horribly miscast as Dr. Gonzo. It makes you realize just how right Gilliam, Depp, and co. got it with FEAR & LOATHING IN LV.

Ned Merrill said...

Man, I actually think Hanks has some funny moments in BP, particularly when he's grossing out the wife's family at lunch, as when he starts telling them about the 15 year-old Korean girl he's got his eye on for adoption. Crazy to see future Hollywood royalty Hanks in such a sleazy picture. The other guys--Michael Dudikoff, William Tepper, Robert Prescott, Barry Diamond, Gary Grossman--and the late George Grizzard deliver the real comic gold. Adrian Zmed...still pretty douche-like.

Have to admit, I haven't seen FEAR AND LOATHING, either. Never been a big Gilliam or Thompson follower, I guess.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Very nice job writing about a movie that I probably like more than I should. I insist that "It's casual" has entered the lexicon...but maybe I'm the only one who's a part of that.

Still no DVD and I'm not expecting one but the film has turned up on HBO fairly recently. Also, a nice 35mm print played at the New Beverly a little over a year ago. It was a midnight screening that was halted partway through when an attempt to eject a few obnoxious drunk guys turned into a fight out front and the cops were called. Truly the wild life.

Ned Merrill said...

Thanks for commenting, Peel. Man, I would love to see WILD LIFE projected...I'd have been pretty upset, however, if I'd been present at the aborted New Bev screening. I programmed the film on 16mm when I was college, but it screened during the summer when I was off campus. I still have the folded one-sheet that we ordered from the National Screen Service for that booking.

HBO, you say? I wonder if it's popped up on their HD feed? Universal has been putting some not-on-DVD titles (THE BIG FIX comes to mind) on Netflix Instant in HD. Perhaps THE WILD LIFE will appear there.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

For the record, the screening made it to the end! They just stopped the projector at a certain point and started again from the beginning of the halted reel. It was a strange night.

Unknown said...

"Adrian Zmed...still pretty douche-like."

Heh! Ain't that the truth! Everytime I see his name I think of that Dennis Miller standup bit: "Zmed. Now there's a hoafer. I haven't seen choreography that stiff since the Lee Harvey Oswald prison transfer."

Ned Merrill said...


Hadn't heard that schtick from Miller it.

Tiffany Perez-King said...

I Adore The Wild Life, saw it opening night at the theatre, there were maybe 10 peeps there. It hard to say you love a film you've only seen twice, once at 16, once again who knows when. I remember being impressed with the Vietnam obbsessed kid. I think I knew several cats like that. Mostly,I love it because I sort of adopted Chris Penn's "it's casual" as my personal mantra. I think i may have said it the day we met J, in regard to the meeting, "blah, blah, blah, it's casual". I think I say it twice day. I liked it as a way of coping with my own crazy life where I worried about everything, I just sort of adopted that world view and frankly, I think it may have gotten me through some rough shit. That's a bananas thing to say but I think it may true. I wanna watch that odd little movie again. I found a weird freedom in that muscle head-(pre Gym/Tan/Laundry)- pursuit of hedonism. Like Jimmy Buffett on roids? A very unique character, at that time, anyway. Mr. Peel is right.. It's in the lexicon.

Ned Merrill said...

Thanks for sharing, Bill! Very cool that you were there opening night and, yes, I do think I heard you use "It's casual" or some similar colloquialism!

Darren said...

I still have the original HBO version on VHS. I bought the official VHS tape to have the original VHS box on ebay - but the soundtrack is different than the HBO version and the movie is not the same. I am trying to convert the HBO version to DVD. Best movie ever.