Ambition is a rare bird in movies, but to see it take wing in summertime — when the living is cheesy — is as unexpected as a kind word from Howard Stern. So imagine finding not one but three fat-cat Hollywood films — Wolf, The Lion King and Forrest Gump — willing to fuck with a winning formula for the sake of letting a risky idea or two sneak into the commercial mix. The films achieve varying degrees of success in reaching their goals, but each one earns points for not doing business as usual.
Wolf comes on like the ultimate in high concept: Jack Nicholson turns into a werewolf. No problem there. He's played monsters before: devil (The Witches of Eastwick), joker (Batman), lawyer (Easy Rider). It might be fun to see him grow fangs, sprout fur and howl at the moon.
And it is. But director Mike Nichols is after bigger game than a romp with Jack the ripper. He tempers the testosterone level in Jim Harrison's mythic story about a '90s werewolf by trying to make it real. The writer and director are an odd coupling. Harrison, the Michigan poet and novelist (Legends of the Fall), hunts his dinner. Nichols, the urban sophisticate (The Graduate, Working Girl), dines out. So Harrison revised his script, and Wesley Strick (Cape Fear) revised Harrison. That's where ambition comes in and with it bad buzz: Premiere predicted, "This wolf gets left behind." Please. For those less obsessed with box office, Wolf offers pleasures and provocations that far outweigh its uneven tone.
The film begins in the dead of night. Nicholson, as book editor Will Randall, is driving home to Manhattan from Vermont, wiping snow from the windshield. There's a full moon, and Ennio Morricone supplies "wee-oooh" music as Will hits a wolf and climbs out of the car to investigate. He gets a nasty nip on the wrist for his trouble; then the beast runs off, and Giuseppe Rotunno's camera catches a pack of wolves giving Will the hairy eyeball and us the heebie-jeebies.
The scary setup then switches to high comedy as Will returns to his office at MacLeish House, where his "taste and individuality" are about to cost him his job as senior editor. Will's boss, Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer), prefers the "heat and gossip" approach of the backstabbing Stewart Swinton (James Spader), a polished ass kisser who pretends to be Will's ally. No one puts more wicked zest into playing yuppie scum than the gifted Spader — he's a roguish delight.
It's a shock, at first, seeing Nicholson as a burned-out lard butt who lets a wimp run off with his career and his wife, Charlotte (Kate Nelligan). But the worm soon turns, and as Will says, "He's packing an Uzi." That wolf bite is doing bizarre things to Will. All his senses are heightened. He can edit without glasses, smell tequila on a researcher's breath at 50 paces and hear office gossip across the hall. Nichols is a master of the telling detail, and his vision of the New York publishing world as an urban jungle is elegantly stylized and bitingly funny.
With his feral instincts aroused, Will whups the sleazoids, wins back his job and develops an urge for the boss's rebel daughter, Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer). "If I knew you were this ruthless, I never would have fired you," says Raymond. The downside is that Will starts attacking deer after dark and chewing fingers off muggers. It's the price of primitivism.
Nicholson is amazing, finding humor and poignancy in a role that could have slid into caricature. His scenes with Pfeiffer, who gives a luminous performance, have a welcome edge, aided by some uncredited scripting from Nichols' former comedy partner Elaine May. At first, Will is impatient with Laura ("Except for all that beauty, you're not very interesting"), and she with him. Then Laura discovers a kinship with the man she calls "the old guy" — they are both among the walking wounded. "I've waited a long time for a good man who looks at me the way you do," Laura tells Will. Her words have real impact, especially since the tender moment occurs when Will has chained himself to a hotel radiator so he won't tear her throat out.
The good man in Will is in danger of expiring, replaced by a wolf who can't control his baser instincts. It's fine sport watching the underdog replace his limp dick with a hard-on and stick it to the system. But the film, rightly, pulls us back. Without limits, Will is just another predator. Nichols has crafted a rapturous romantic thriller with a darkly comic subtext about what kills human values. It's inexplicable why, in the end, the film resorts to cheap-jack horror effects that defang its premise. Wolf is most alive when it prowls with the beast among us.