The Not-So-Fast Fast Times Follow-up Stalls out for Stars Eric Stoltz and Lea Thompson
DIRECTED BY ART LINSON/1984
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: APRIL 13, 2021/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
If Fast Times at Ridgemont High was a little too fast for you, its ostensible sequel, 1984’s The Wild Life, shifts things into a considerably lesser gear. The connective tissue is formidable: writer Cameron Crowe has once again scribed the film, Eddie Van Halen- referenced throughout Fast Times– provides shredding guitar riffs for the score, and Sean Penn’s brother, Chris Penn, has a starring role meant to evoke Jeff Spicoli. High school is winding down for this mostly older cadre of characters, though it is still a factor. Even more important, though, is their mundane, low-paying jobs, where considerable time is spent- a bowling alley, a clothing store in a mall, a donut shop.
But one vital missing ingredient is perhaps the most obvious- the female perspective. Not to belabor the Fast Times comparisons (to be honest, The Wild Life doesn’t just invite them, it demands them), but it might be here- where she isn’t– that the balancing influence of director Amy Heckerling is truly apparent. The Wild Life goes for its predecessor’s loose-ensemble blend of vaguely connected teens doing what teens do in early-1980s California; but as directed by Art Linson, the “good ‘ol red-blooded boy” aspect keeps its thumb firmly on the gender-perspective scale. (Please tell me that it was indeed a thumb).
The Wild Life’s approach to nudity is perhaps the quickest demonstration of the imbalance. We all remember Phoebe Cates getting out of the pool in Heckerling’s film. Linson (and Crowe) ratchet up the bare-boobie quotient by (as the disc’s audio commentators put it) “luxuriating” in the dudes’ trip to a strip club (Ashley St. John and Russ Meyer favorite Kitten Natividad get an astonishing amount of screen time, simply strutting around on stage. Yet, the perfect, fleeting sexiness of the Cates topless moment is a million miles away. The point of the Cates scene was that in its fantasy, it countered a much more mundane (and ultimately embarrassing) reality. The strip club, with its aged horndogs flanking our characters and lingering on… and on… and onnn… is the opposite effect. It’s real alright. It’s still, and just surface-level dirty. And it seems inescapable.
Of course, that anatomy-centric example is simply the most egregious and obvious of several throughout The Wild Life. To a certain degree, there’s an understanding that such content is inevitably going to be a part of teen comedy circa 1984. (The seed was planted hard in the previous generation’s wave of teen comedies, the far more vapid and misogynistic cheap drive-in “passion pit programmers”). But even beyond that, The Wild Life (try as it might) never does justice to the female characters as it tries to with the males. (And no- despite the efforts of Eric Stoltz and Rick Moranis in a glorified nothing-to-do cameo- even the male perspective fails to resonate here).
Linson’s own experience and end result was apparently such that he hasn’t yet directed another feature. His career flourished, but as a Hollywood power-producer. (The Untouchables, Fight Club). Heckerling’s career post Fast Times stumbled as well, though she bounced back with 1995’s Clueless and to a lesser degree, the Look Who’s Talking films. The big winner in all of this was Cameron Crowe, who went on to his own far more honed and greatly successful directorial career with 1989’s Say Anything.
With The Wild Life, Crowe seems to have sown the last of his wild oats of his earlier Journalism career, even if the “sequel” didn’t end up matching his initial idea. According to the commentary, he wanted this to be a story of an adolescent Jim Morrison transplanted to the 1980s and coming of age in Reagan’s America. I think I probably speak for all of us when I say, “….Huh?” This notion survives in fraction via Ilan Mitchell-Smith’s 1960s-obsessed younger brother character. What did survive in whole cloth was Crowe’s ham-fisted attempt at launching a eighties catch phrase, Penn’s retort to everything, “It’s casual”.
What this review must come down to is that Kino Lorber Studio Classics has released a great Blu-ray of a not-so-great movie. The transfer pops with mid-1980s bursts of bright pinks and yellows and checkered whites amid the mundane reality which the characters occupy. The wealth of the soundtrack’s many pop and rock songs comes through loud and clear, though some tunes that were swapped out years ago for previous home video versions remain MIA. (Madonna, Billy Idol, and “Hey Joe” by Jimi Hendrix among them).
Of particular note, this Blu-ray features an absolutely excellent new audio commentary by writer/podcaster Mike “McBeardo” McPadden (author of Teen Movie Hell) and author/disc jockey Ian Christe. The track is particularly bittersweet in that McPadden unexpectedly died in late December of 2020, presumably shortly after this was recorded. The disc is dedicated to his memory.
Wrapping it out, there’s a candid 14-minute interview with co-star Ilan Mitchell-Smith, who played the young would-be Jim Morrison in the film. Mitchell-Smith discussed the loneliness of being a kid on a set otherwise occupied by actors in their 20s. He’s long since given up acting for teaching medieval literature at the university level. Finally, the disc offers nine radio spots and an array of related trailers, including The Wild Life’s.
It’s been said that comedy relief is simply pattern disrupted. Sean Penn’s Spicoli set a gold-star example of this per the teen comedy sub-genre. The Wild Life, for all its more specific failings, broadly fails to provide any such comedy relief. The result is a teen comedy that simply isn’t funny. It’s light in tone, and colorful, and (for the most part) reasonably paced, but funny… not really. Its most enduring qualities lie in its nevertheless impressive talent pool of actors, most notably a pre-Back to the Future Lea Thompson, who is nothing if not radiant here. Apparently, the friendship she struck up with Stoltz- the originally-cast Marty McFly- got her her BTTF role. Stoltz is also fine here, if also a bit bland in depicting a social climber looking to live in an apartment beyond his means. (Think AIP’s 1977 drive-in hit, The Van, complete with a dopey scrawny redheaded boy convinced that blowing all his hard-earned minimum wage savings on a Chevy van with a waterbed in the back will automatically make him an irresistible sex machine. It does not).
The Wild Life, outside the context of its Fast Times connection, is all the more worthless. It’s in that context, and as a teen comedy of the mid-1980s (just before John Hughes upended and transformed the niche) that the film is of note today. It might be no great shakes, but no be would deny that it’s casual.