Struggling to muster the enthusiasm that Fast Times at Ridgemont High had in spades, The Wild Life feels like a faded photocopy of Cameron Crowe’s previous screenplay, shedding its candor and authenticity in favor of bad-boy posturing and spurious melodrama. Adolescent sexual dynamics are once again the focal point, as they would be for any developing teenager, but Crowe reigns in the scope of the project, favoring a handful of acquaintances over the broader social institution. Investigating the road to maturity at a microscopic level is a brilliant concept, though restricting the focus does require a certain compositional vividness, detail that The Wild Life’s vapid characters curiously lack. Without this definition, the resulting product is little more than an ineffectual string of break-ups and beer blasts, meandering and insignificant in its lack of conflict and emotional attachment.
Bottle-blonde and rippling with pubescent testosterone, Tommy Drake (Christopher Penn) is Spicoli without the charm or wit, exclusively expressing himself through celebratory headbutts, smashed beer bottles and sexual urges. His ideological counterpoint and unlikely confidant is Bill Conrad (Eric Stoltz), a 19-year-old bowling-alley manager who stows away every paycheck in hopes of acquiring a bachelor pad, the obvious first step on his path to personal independence from parent and girlfriend alike. Their relationship consists of nothing more than vacuous discussion of past classmates and current lovers, a state of torpor that acts as a security blanket from the responsibility lurking around the corner and as contrivance for a writer trying to force his leads into pre-ordained stock characters.
Crowe does add one new wrinkle to the old chestnut of youthful naivety, placing Bill at the mercy of a greedy landlord that coerces him into a larger security deposit, an obstacle that forces the greenhorn to reluctantly take Tommy in as a roommate. Sadly, this stillborn idea is only a vehicle for an obligatory string of noise complaints and trite party sequences, setpieces that would be shamelessly derivative if they weren’t held up against the woefully underwritten female characters.
The sole supporting role of interest belongs to Bill’s brother, Jim (Ilan Mitchell-Smith), a combat-obsessed juvenile delinquent who chain-smokes and tosses M-80s like he’s on a tour of duty, desperately seeking the attention of an absentee father. His obsession with a heroin-addicted Vietnam veteran is a welcome dose of reality, but not one that meshes well with the insubstantiality of the rest of the piece, particularly the absence of other outwardly political themes. Despite its brevity, Randy Quaid’s moment on screen as the aforementioned solder is substantial, but it has no context and functions only as a brief respite from the youthful frivolity.
Otherwise, The Wild Life is stuck spinning its wheels, gaining little narrative momentum over a fruitless 96 minutes, stagnant in its adherence to rules set by a far better film. It’s no fault of the middle-class milieu it ventures to define, depicted in the single-parent households, summer jobs and unattainable dreams that occupy the American identity. The fault lies with the scribe, who has reduced a relatable experience to a succession of worthless banalities and cynically given his dramatis personae little more to dream of than raging keggers and bouncing breasts. By playing to juvenile obsessions, Cameron Crowe paints a bleak future for his myopic protagonists.
The Wild Life (Universal Pictures, 1984)
Directed by Art Linson
Written by Cameron Crowe
Photographed by James Glennon
We'd like to thank Teenage Bedrooms on Screen for the high-res screengrabs!