"The Wild Life" is not a sequel to "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," but more of a consequence, sharing a common base in writer Cameron Crowe's yearlong experience as an undercover high school student in California. That's both fortunate and unfortunate. Fortunate because both films reflect Crowe's uncanny feel for adolescent fixations (and his gift for recreating authentic dialogue); unfortunate because "The Wild Life" retains none of the manic good humor and intensity of "Ridgemont High."
There's a somber subtext to so much of what happens in this allegedly comedic film that its title, supporting the promise of what awaits us when we grow up, is intentionally ironic. As in most teen and teen-oriented films, there are half a dozen stories unwinding at once, waiting to be tied up at the end of 96 minutes. But the film's major drawback is that it can't decide whether to be serious and revealing in the manner of "American Graffiti," debauched and delirious in the manner of "Porky's," wryly instructive in the manner of "Risky Business" or drugged and disjointed in the manner of "Ridgemont High." And so it becomes a little bit of all of these. Thankfully, "Wild Life" fails to absorb any of the "Last American Virgin"; according to Crowe, Jimi Hendrix would be singing "Are You Experienced?" to deadened ears in 1984.
The central characters in "The Wild Life" are, as usual, males, and most of the situations evolve out of male bonding rituals. Tom Drake (Christopher Penn, as insouciant as his brother Sean, but lacking the floppy face) is a champion high school wrestler whose philosophy of life can best be summed up in two syllables: "Par-tyyyy!" His improbable best friend, Bill Conrad (Eric Stoltz) has recently graduated and is ready to move on to bigger and better things than home life and undergraduate girlfriends. Drake is ready to move on with him, and ends up moving into Conrad's first bachelor apartment. From the moment that situation is set up, you know that the film's capper will be a humongous party scene and director Art Linson doesn't disappoint.
But there are some intriguing subplots at work here, as well. The most promising centers around 15-year-old Jim Conrad, played by Ilan Mitchell-Smith, who played the young "Daniel" for Sidney Lumet. He's a tensile performer, seemingly on the edge of exploding, yet also hounded and sensitive. He does more for the role than it deserves.
The best acting in "The Wild Life" comes from two women who also manage to overcome the limitations of their roles. Lea Thompson, who is now almost sadly interchangeable with Ally Sheedy and is in danger of becoming a permanent teen-ager, plays the romantically disposed doughnut clerk. Her best friend, played by Jenny Wright, is caught between her own work ambitions and her obvious need to slip free of the dunce played by Penn. Both roles are subtly underplayed, yet thoroughly believable. There's also a nice turn by Hildy Brooks as Mrs. Conrad, who records Tom's leaving home on video: the cutting back and forth between what her camera's eye and Linson's see is funny and engaging. And all too brief.
The weakest acting comes from the film's ostensible catalyst, Stoltz. One keeps waiting for him to break into Tom Cruise-like aggression, but languidly played against Penn's buoyant slob and party animal, Stoltz is the odd partner out. And the tiresome Rick Moranis is rapidly wearing out his welcome as the Nerd from Central Casting. Somebody give this man a girlfriend!
For all the nice turns, this movie can't decide whether to focus on undergraduate fun and fantasy or the tensions of the workaday world. As a result, the film fails to deliver its promised exploration of the last week of summer, when some people find themselves with no way to turn back, and no place to look forward to.