Jack Nicholson is already so diabolical that putting fur and fangs on him is like sending coals to Newcastle. In Wolf, the problematic new horror-satire by Mike Nichols (Regarding Henry), Nicholson is least interesting when he’s furry. The casting is a bit too on-the-nose: Nicholson has spent his career entertaining us by showing us the wolf inside him. When he’s on the prowl, mangling deer or Central Park muggers, not only have we (essentially) seen him do it before, we’ve seen dozens of guys do it before him. He’s funny when he lets the wolf slip into his daylight persona, but we’ve seen him do that, too. Yet in the first half hour, Nicholson gives a performance we haven’t seen before: a tired old schnook clutching at the last vestiges of youth. Wolf is partly about regaining potency, and Nicholson superbly plays an impotent man (in all respects), making you forget for a while that he’s Jack, notorious stud, Lakers fan.
The werewolf legend has always dealt with sex. The teenage-wolfman movies are about horny, hormonal adolescence — itchy libido asserting itself with strange new hairs, urges, fluids. The rare female variations, like The Company of Wolves, examine the sexual beast in both genders (though that angle most often comes out in vampire movies). And almost all versions are about a good man’s fear of his id taking over and hurting the woman he loves. Wolf may be the first werewolf movie to use the legend as a vehicle for exploring a middle-aged man’s sexual insecurity. (Most wolfmen of the past were youngsters.) It’s also about getting in touch with what Robert Bly called “the hairy man” — the movie could be called Iron Jack. Yet Wolf isn’t particularly erotic, unless you’re into handcuffs — and even that idea was put to rest in Innocent Blood and the 1982 Cat People, where the predators (both women) were cuffed prior to sex so as not to mangle their lovers.
Nicholson is Will Randall, a New York literary agent with “taste and individuality” — the wrong qualities for the job, especially after a conglomerate (headed by icy Christopher Plummer) takes over Will’s publishing house and plans to push bestsellers at the expense of superior, obscure authors. Soon, Will finds himself demoted, his job given to his sleazy protegé Stewart (James Spader) — who also happens to be boffing Will’s wife (Kate Nelligan in a one-note performance). This double whammy comes during an already bad week: Will has been bitten by a wolf, and the wound is becoming inflamed and … hairy. He scares horses, but he doesn’t scare Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer), the conglomerate head’s daughter, a bitter young woman who responds to Will’s vulnerability and then to the aura of wild-thing danger he exudes. In these tales, women are always drawn to the wolfman: A little bit of wolf in a good man is exciting — just as a lot of wolf in a bad man is exciting in the worst way.
Nicholson has some of his most gentle, touching moments when Will backs away from the pursuing Laura, afraid of the monster in himself — the very thing that is attracting her — and Pfeiffer matches him for a while, playing a smart woman grateful for some quiet, intelligent talk with a man who actually reads. But then the script (by Wesley Strick and Jim Harrison, suggested by Harrison’s odd semi-autobiographical novella) all but abandons her, presumably having bigger fish to fry. The newly confident Will tells off his cheating wife and claws his way back into his job.
Many, like me, may wish that Wolf focused more on the boardroom scrapping in the publishing house, where office politics are a civilized update of wolf activity: travelling in packs, marking one’s territory, preying on the weak. (Business is red in tooth and claw.) But the satire is too facile to be interesting, and besides, a $60 million Hollywood movie has little business lampooning mainstream literature. As Nicholson gets wolfier, he gets more predictable, and he forfeits the movie to James Spader. Playing the gelatinous Stewart, Spader does the smartest thing anyone playing a villain can do: He behaves as if the movie were about Stewart, a bright, ambitious, reasonable young man who has to put up with some troublesome old fart. Spader hits his stride when he himself starts getting wolfy; we certainly haven’t seen that performance before, and he’s rather frightening. It’s as if lycanthropy eliminated the “civilized” mask hiding one’s basest instincts; Stewart is revealed as a pathetic yet infinitely threatening rapist, a bad man with nothing but wolf in him.
Wolf isn’t a horror movie, though it looks like one. Even a semi-serious wolfman film like An American Werewolf in London quickened our heartbeats by placing innocent people in the path of the temporarily predatory hero. What makes Nicholson’s performance effective in the early scenes, when the noble Will struggles to keep a lid on his new savagery, also zaps any suspense — we know he won’t hurt Laura or anyone else who doesn’t have it coming. Seeing Wolf on a double bill with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, as I did recently, is instructive: Neither Kubrick nor Mike Nichols has much interest or faith in the horror genre — they use horror as a springboard for larger concerns (inhumanity, fear of impotence, etc.). What mainstream directors never learn is that horror movies are uniquely equipped to address these concerns covertly and still be fun and scary. (Look at David Cronenberg’s The Fly, or the Alien series.) Nichols’ direction of the Jack-attack scenes in Wolf is depressingly half-assed. Perhaps afraid that he can’t show werewolf fans anything they haven’t seen already, Nichols undercompensates by showing nothing. His heart is in this movie only incidentally — in the theme of a man coming to grips with an abrupt, shocking change in his life. But didn’t Nichols just do that a few years ago? Wolf is almost Regarding Hairy.
I doubt that Wolf is meant to stand alongside the classics of the genre. Like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it’s an upscale gloss on the legend, done with tact by a major director dabbling in horror. Aside from James Spader, who gives you the creeps even in his pre-wolfy stage, Wolf is short on the primal punch werewolf movies are supposed to deliver. The movie never cuts loose, and neither, really, does Jack Nicholson; he was more of a werewolf in The Shining, and far more threatening. It’s nice that everyone’s suddenly interested in the old Universal monster catalog, but oh, for a director who can reproduce the chills of, say, James Whale or Val Lewton. Wolf needs more full moon in its soul. What it has, when you come down to it, is Jack Nicholson as the world’s highest-paid Chia Pet.