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Nichols and Nicholson disappoint with a tame Wolf

WOLF

Directed by Mike Nichols.

Written by Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick.

Starring Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, James Spader, Kate Nelligan, and Christopher Plummer.

Loews Cheri.

By Scott Deskin
Associate Arts Editor

The choice to cast Jack Nicholson as a werewolf in the new film Wolf seems like a logical idea, at least on paper. In this film he plays Will Randall, an editor-in-chief at a publishing house whose life is hitting the rocks. His company has been taken over by a millionaire (Christopher Plummer) who appreciates killer instinct and ambition over loyalty and civility -- at least in the corporate arena. Soon after he is demoted Randall learns that his wife (Kate Nelligan) has entered into an affair with an underhanded, back-stabbing co-worker (James Spader) who forces him off the top of the corporate ladder. Randall, always the gentleman, lets other people walk all over him even when he knows that he's about to take a fall. What else can a weak-willed, middle-aged man do?

The solution, or change, to his life comes when a wolf bite on a dark New England road (in the presence of a full moon, of course) causes his metamorphosis into a werewolf, thereby unleashing the beast within. Not only do his senses sharpen during the day, bringing with them a new self-confidence, but he falls prey to his animal instincts at night, going on prowls through Central Park, making victims of wild animals and humans alike.

Another plot device becomes apparent in the millionaire's daughter (Michelle Pfeiffer), a world-wise rich girl who inevitably falls for the newly-empowered Randall. It's not the greatest, nor freshest, set-up that films about werewolves have to offer, but the talented cast presents some promise.

However, practically all of that potential is wasted by a bloated, unrealistic love story, campy special effects, and shallow characterizations. Director Mike Nichols has done comedy before (The Graduate, Working Girl) as well as drama (Silkwood, Regarding Henry), both with varying degrees of success. In Wolf, however, one can't really be sure what genre Nichols is trying to plant himself in when he's dealing with horror.

By all accounts, this movie should be fun, and its main character should revel in the powers of his alter ego rather than get bogged down in the emotional crises of work and marriage. The latter prevail, though, and they cancel out whatever possibility of humor within the horror story. A movie can hardly try to be sophisticated when its shots of a werewolf leaping through the air visually qualify as camp humor. (Many audience members laughed during the climactic action sequences.)

The cast also deserves some of the blame. Jack Nicholson's emotionally "restrained" character at the start of the film never really rings genuine. As Stephen King once said in criticism of Stanley Kubrick's film version of The Shining: An audience can't really buy into Nicholson's portrayal of a character who slowly goes insane because he already looks sort of "crazy." (His roles in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and as the Joker in Batman probably add to this image.)

This film doesn't approach any of the aforementioned ones in terms of lunatic performance, so that Nicholson is handicapped at the start when he tries to play his character straight. Michelle Pfeiffer is not much more than a pretty face -- albeit one that caps a self-determined, hard-nosed character -- who is soon relegated to standard, unnecessary love interest. As annoying as James Spader's character is, he gets the most to work with in this picture: His over-the-top delivery and greasiness of character almost create enough of a diversion from the incoherent plot.

All told, Wolf is probably one of the summer's first major disappointments. The last such pairing of Nicholson and Pfeiffer was in The Witches of Eastwick, a sometimes crude but often hilarious showcase of both stars' charismatic qualities, using them for outlandish swordplay instead of hollow theatrics.

This film makes you laugh when you should be enthralled, and it leaves you puzzled when you should be moved. The advertisements boast, "The animal is out," but, sadly, there's not much of it on the screen.