Directed by Mike Nichols
Written by Jim Harrison, Wesley Strick, and Elaine May
I wanted Dionysian, but he wanted Apollonian. He took my wolf and made it into a chihuahua. I cracked up for 10 minutes and then went out into the country and stood in front of a wolf den and apologized while my dog hid under the truck.
That's Jim Harrison, novelist and frequently-frustrated film writer, and I suppose never more frustrated than here—Wolf turned out to be his final script, and between this frustration, Wesley Strick's rewrite, and uncredited revisions by Elaine May, one may surmise he wrote little of what ultimately wound up onscreen—but other than the part where he sounds like a dipshit, it's not a bad read on the movie Mike Nicholes directed. As a pitch, Wolf makes perfect intellectual sense, and on paper all of it should work: a middle-aged man encounters a werewolf and, though nominally "cursed," his involuntary return to a state closer to red-toothed nature, psychologically as well as physically, gives him his groove back, and then there's a werewolf fight tacked on at the end because conventional, commercially-minded narratives need external conflict, and somehow this commercially-minded narrative cost a mind-boggling $70 million in 1994.
It fits readily into 90s fixations besides spending vastly more money on a film that doesn't look like it could possibly have cost half that: it's a decade where it can feel like about once a month there was another brand new movie about another straight male householder who's no longer young, and who has more or less reached a state of dissatisfaction and diffidence about it, the fantasy being that something happens, and he revives. These came in a lot of different tones, of course—Strick was practically a specialist in the field, Wolf arriving at the tail end of the "hot" phase of his career, when he'd just laid down his screenplays for Arachnophobia and Cape Fear (and also performed some uncredited doctoring on Batman Returns, which on reflection might be more germane than I think), both of those movies telling a version of that story in their own particular register, the former avowedly silly, the latter all grim-n-gritty, but each still about a petit patriarch, feminized (or "feminized," pretend there are scare-quotes around anything you don't like) by his profession and his domesticity, nevertheless proving his mettle as a man. The register of the most serious, lauded films in the genre—Arachnophobia, all-timer it may be, is not exactly a movie where your first, second, or third thoughts about it go to its screenplay—was usually an attitude of overt resentment, angry at society in general, sometimes women in particular, and bearing a grudge against capitalism, albeit in a personally-aggrieved, "our Great Depression is our lives" sort of way. And, joyful or angry as the case may have been, a lot of them tended to offer, as token of our hero's groove being gotten back (so, yes, sometimes they did make these movies about women too), a potentially-great and often-age-gapped lay. I believe the relevant quote in Wolf is "fuck of the decade," and since we have seen Batman Returns (hey, they really did make these about women), it's clear that Michelle Pfeiffer would indeed be a contender; meanwhile, this isn't even the only one of these with Jack Nicholson. (There is, at least, As Good As It Gets, but for all I know there might be three or four of them.) Well, in this one, he turns into a wolf, man.
So, that. The assumption that Sony (via Columbia Pictures) was all-but-openly attempting to recreate Universal's run of classic monsters in the 30s and 40s for 90s audiences has a virtually inescapable gravity—you simply do not have a big hit with a Dracula, follow that up with a go at Frankenstein and do Contemporary Wolf Man in between by accident—yet it frankly shocks me to my core to learn that Wolf predated all of this by a while, being a passion project nursed for more than a decade by its star, the most on-the-nose candidate for middle-aged lycanthropy that Hollywood currently had going. But it speaks for itself that it only finally got made after Bram Stoker's Dracula made Columbia a lot of money, and it got released in the summer of 1994, theoretically whetting appetites for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in the fall*; but while they remain loosely grouped together in the public imagination, it does explain why one of these things is not remotely like the others, well beyond what "Francis Ford Coppola wasn't involved" and "there's no public domain Wolf Man novel" would already explain on their own. Those movies, anyway, are what you would cheerfully call Dionysian—Dracula is one of the most Dionysian studio films of the 90s, and let's not count Frankenstein out—and Wolf barely resembles them, so that if the Universal Monsters had never existed or a werewolf wasn't one of them, I don't think you would make any connection; but I'm not sure that this means that it must, by default, be "Apollonian," or even particularly smart. Now I need to interject here: I sound like I despise this movie, and I don't—I absolutely respond to the emotional appeal it's making, for I am a no-longer-young straight male householder, not stone—but it is something of a consistent disappointment.
It turns out that Nichols is a filmmaker all of whose major works I've seen by accident; frankly, he's not one of my favorites. But heretofore I'd had some respect for how he handled really goofy genre material, my touchstone here being The Day of the Dolphin—I don't believe this even counts as a "major work," but it is major in my heart. Here's why I bring it up: Day of the Dolphin is a movie about a talking dolphin who's tricked into trying to kill the president. Despite this fucking insane logline, one of the things that recommends that film is how effortlessly classy it winds up being. It throws the contrast here into sharp relief: Wolf is trying to be classy, and you constantly feel how much exertion it's expending to take itself this seriously, until there at last comes a point where it just plain runs out of energy to keep up the pretense, which isn't actually "better"—when it does finally get pulpy and stupid, it's a jarring imposition that I was more apt to laugh at—though maybe there are other fundamental failures that explain this, as the more visible difference between this and Day of the Dolphin is that Day of the Dolphin has, no joke, some of the most accomplished cinematography of the 1970s, and a very convincing "effect" in the form of, well, an actual dolphin, whereas Wolf ultimately drags itself up to looking like the work of talented amateurs. It starts out significantly below that benchmark, it goes back frequently, and the balance of the film looks like a TV movie, or even a TV show, as even with something as simple as "driving a car," Seinfeld could be more persuasive.
So we begin on a night drive through the snowbound mountains of Vermont, and I'll try not to mention the rear-projected driving again, though this scene starts to indicate what a horrible time Nichols and DP Giuseppe Rotunno are going to have rendering "nighttime" in this werewolf movie, and across such a remarkably wide variety of techniques. This is just plain overlit, but we're going to suffer through some atrocious day-for-night before we're done, while the absolute nadir of this tendency arrives deep, deep into the third act, with a slatted beam of light (along with, bizarrely, the editing) communicating, in no uncertain terms, "the dawn," despite the time being, according to the movie around it, about eight p.m. Anyway, on this incredibly brightly-lit snowbound road we find Will Randall (Nicholson), who's the editor-in-chief at a publishing house currently undergoing reorganization; however, what's important right this second is that his car strikes a wolf. Will, we'll come to learn, is soft, and basically decent-hearted, so the other thing this scene is trying and failing to tell us, narratively, besides "it's the wilderness, and not downtown Montpelier," is presumably that it's a concern for the animal's welfare which motivates Will to get out of his car, though it only gets as far as telling us "he's an idiot who pokes at wounded animals." It does manage to make its central idea clear enough: Will gets bitten by the wolf before it perishes, and, realizing that he is surrounded by its packmates, he beats a hasty retreat back to his car. We notice that Rick Baker's animatronic effects work has an uncanny cast to it, and I'm of two minds about it: it's bad, some of the worst-looking stuff Baker ever did, but there's a purposefulness to that uncanniness, because you're supposed to see, and you do recognize, a human semblance to these wolves. So let's round back and blame Nichols and Rotunno instead, for blasting the bejeezus out of them with light.
I am not going to describe every last scene in this detail, but the first scene is always important, as it sets the meter for all that follows. So Will gets his rabies shots, and continues to deal with the corporate hell he's gotten himself embroiled in at work: his firm's callous new owner Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer) is holding a grand party on his billionaire's estate, where he drops the news that Will can either accept a humiliating demotion or take his walking papers; Will further learns that Stewart Swinton (James Spader), his own protege—his friend, or so he believed—has stolen his current job out from under him. He'll eventually learn that Stewart's even screwing his wife (Kate Nelligan), but in the meantime Will just has a little fainting and sweating spell whilst, curiously, managing to frighten Alden's horses; his apparent sickliness earns him the compassion of Alden's daughter Laura (Pfeiffer), who may hate her dad more than he does, and isn't exactly panting for Will so far, but his groove, it's not back yet, and there is at least something she likes about him already. The fainting and sweating (just like a wolf!) isn't mere anxiety, however: Will's changing, and he has his questions about this change—it's hard to ascribe a strictly scientific explanation to super-hearing and a lupine sense of smell—but he's also enjoying it and how it makes him feel, so with his new capabilities he rises to the challenge set out before him, seizing his status and territory back by hook, crook, and fucking the boss's daughter. But he is also literally turning into a wolf, and wolves hunt, and they kill, and they're not fit for human company.
This isn't too bad, and fundamentally it does work. It thinks it's Cat People, and it's not Cat People,* partly because it's most of an hour longer, partly because it takes itself out of being a fable about the interface of modernity with the unconscious by being body-and-soul modernist in its temperament, and partly because it perceives a need to still be a movie about a literal and explicit supernatural phenomenon, insofar as while it might think it's Cat People because a lot of times it doesn't show things that definitely happened, nothing about it suggests Nichols or anyone ever believed "actual ambiguity" was a possibility. But it's not not Cat People, and any individual scene is a perfectly well-written thing. Honestly, it works: it's Nicholson "doing a Jack" in many respects, but it's reasonably fun to see Nicholson evolve into "a Jack" for a change, and one may enjoy his corporate duel with Spader's ruthless kiss-ass who's constantly insincerely apologizing to you while he twists the knife he put in your back; it works best as a paranormal romance, Pfeiffer putting on a strong enough performance to lift Laura out of the instrumentality that threatens her, and rendering a surprisingly credible attraction to the nice guy underneath the newfound yuppie machismo, not to mention for a guy who also spends a lot of their time together seemingly deathly ill in between saying wackadoodle things about animal spirits. (Pfeiffer's particular physicality, some of it her "haughty ice queen" thing, but more like just the color of her eyes, is also pretty important for the denouement, to come off as subtle as it does.) It's still mostly a straight line, but somehow the lore-dump scene with wise old man Vijav Alezais (Om Puri), in this case a full-fledged Ph.D. (as well as subcontinental Indian, hence a contemporized nod to the Roma nomads we'd have got in the 1940s), is one of the places where it manages to veer off even slightly into something fascinating, when the decrepit sage asks, politely, if Will would bite him.
What doesn't work, however, is pretty much any place Nichols is obliged to do actual werewolf stuff, and one gets the impression Nicholson must've dragooned him into this werewolf film, because he's not good at horror and clearly disinterested in learning. He contrives to put as much of the horror offscreen as possible; when it's not possible, he has what is probably the worst werewolf makeup ever seen in a major werewolf movie—I'm sure there's worse in actual Z-movies, but this would not be acceptable in a movie that cost literally a hundredth what Wolf did, as it would be considered lacking in diligence for a Halloween costume—and I would assume this is somewhat deliberate, to keep Nicholson and eventually Spader recognizable and to play around with the somebody-must've-thought-it-was-cool visual of a guy sweating through his business attire bounding around like an animal. The "mystical" element is relayed by way of slow-motion, which comes off slightly better than the day-for-night it often takes place in (it does give you a lot of time to realize "hey, that's obviously sunlight"), as a fair amount of it is pretty well-handled in a vacuum where you're not considering the actual content of Nicholson, e.g., chasing a fawn in a fugue state; unfortunately, there are enough pick-ups which depart from the sharp, dreamlike in-camera slo-mo, and do it in post-production instead, that cutting to some gruesome smears becomes an accidental, random motif.
...It's just Wolverine, man.
Even leaving horror aside, this is a surprisingly boring movie to look at—surprising just for Nichols, whom I associate with very noticeable blocking and camerawork, whereas it's almost dumbfoundingly boring in a context that, fairly or not, includes Coppola and Kenneth Branagh's maximal efforts on their monster movies—and it's fully twelve minutes into the film before the very first "interesting shot" happens, and by "interesting" I mean the camera moves through a somewhat-choreographed crowd to find Nicholson at a party. The first one that indicates legitimate directorial imagination might be an hour in, with a single shot that captures, in two enormously widely-separated planes, Spader and Nicholson each getting off their separate cage elevators on either side of their office's atrium, whereupon the latter's face looms up like a demon and overwrites the tiny man in the background. (The office, incidentally, would be the Bradbury Building, of Blade Runner fame, and maybe the most God-awful stand-in conceivable for an office building in New York City. Thus disqualified, the only notable piece of production design in this aggressively quotidian film is a hellish red light in the foyer of Dr. Alezais's book-strewn apartment, so you see what thin reeds we're grasping here.)
But this (admittedly great) image is a complete outlier here. It's a movie with startlingly little flair—if you ever built it up in your head as "that movie where Jack Nicholson wolf-styles Michelle Pfeiffer," you are way off, sex is as off-camera as violence—and everything is envisioned as the opposite of lurid despite luridity being called for. (It's weird that I can make this claim of a movie where our protagonist is having a urinal conversation, turns 90 degrees, and urinates on his enemy's shoes; but if you've seen it, you know I speak truth.) The exception is the finale, which is simply fucking ridiculous, with Stewart now also a wolf—something the film practically calls attention to as bullshit, given that he got bitten like an hour ago, has been acting normally since, and just, boom, werewolf—while Spader decides, not unreasonably, that this is a completely different movie now, with a completely different character, and this is all extremely camp, going for a sniff of Pfeiffer's undercarriage and the like. But there's something that feels so horribly indifferent about a movie where a werewolf kills people by running them over with a car.
For all that, there's enough to like about Wolf. Before sitting down to really think about what an awkward piece of craft (and even basic storytelling) it is, I would have outright called it "good": I said it's boring-looking, but not boring in an absolute sense. It's a solid if now-familiar tale, rendered a little more magical than usual, and it has one terrific denouement, such that I'm not sure actually does grow organically out of the characters, but is still exactly how you'd want it to end; and that's worth calling it "okay," at least.
*Wolf had a decent box office showing, notwithstanding its lunatic cost, and I wonder if it answers my question about how Dracula could possibly succeed enormously in a marketplace where Frankenstein underperforms—it's better-known today that it's the movie that comes out in a franchise before the flop that bears the most blame.
**The 1942 one. Maybe it also thinks it's the 1982 one. I wouldn't know, even if I should, but I kind of doubt it.