'Wolf' begins with a howl,but turns sheepish


"Wolf" means to howl, but the best it can manage is a bow-wow or two, maybe a mangy arf.

Astutely cast, often quite witty, it begins with a promising idea and really seems headed in an interesting direction. Then it's as if someone on the set said, "Hey, it's a horror movie. Blood, guts, bites and fights!" And the whole thing tips off into hokey ludicrousness.

The idea, as cleverly conceived by Jim Harrison, a novelist who presumably would know about such things: In the corridors of power in a New York publishing house, the decent, humane "literary" editor-in-chief, Will Randall (Jack Nicholson), is brutally usurped when the firm is purchased by a corporate pirate, Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer). The engine of his undoing is his unctuous, smirky young "protege," Stewart Swinton, played by that specialist in bootlicking, James Spader. It happens all the time in New York publishing.

But what Stewart can never suspect -- because he doesn't know it's a movie -- is how bad a career move he's just made. That's because up in Vermont Will has just been bitten by the wolf. The wolf, as in, father of all wolves, a mystical beast who, if I interpret the implications correctly, may once have walked on two legs and worn Florshiem wingtips.

And so it follows that a certain long-repressed something is liberated in Will. He's smarter, sharper, tougher, meaner, cleverer. He's the big dog, the alpha-male, the leader of the pack. The movie is at its best as it documents what is essentially the turning -- to hopelessly mix phylum cliches -- of the worm. Suddenly an astute corporate warrior and a gimlet-eyed roller of the dice, Will outmaneuvers his younger antagonist and swiftly manages to usurp the usurper, delivering the big comeuppance in a stream of urine deployed across the younger man's Hush Puppies. "I was marking my territory," says Will.

It helps, of course, that the wondrous Nicholson has feral features to begin with and sharp, beady, penetrating little eyes. This isn't so much a performance as it is an appearance, and Big Jack milks it for all it's worth, those selfsame eyes glinting with high yellow malevolence, his oddly sharp and eloquent eyebrows issuing exclamation points, his tight, smirky little smile bespeaking the pleasures of a predator who has dined on meat often and well.

His newfound confidence and power extend into other areas as well. Meeting Raymond's daughter Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer) he is far from intimidated by her beauty but rather emboldened by it. Their first courtship ritual -- over absurd peanut butter sandwiches -- is a great movie scene, witty dialogue delivered deadpan by two sublimely confident, sexually radioactive performers. I sense the feathery touch of dialogue doctor Elaine May, uncredited but well-paid for her work on the project. And in fact, next to Nicholson's trapezoidal eyebrows, Pfeiffer remains the movie's most stunning attraction. Delivering drop-dead lines and needle-sharp wisecracks, she's suddenly the heroine from a dozen Howard Hawks movies in the Thirties, Lauren Bacall and Jean Arthur rolled into one: lean, beautiful, angular, with an attitude like a Marine looking for a fight. Great stuff.

Unfortunately, after it enjoys this party for so long, the movie can never find anywhere compelling to go. There's really not much tension. It's not structured vividly enough, and we're never sure what's at stake or what the exact narrative problem is. The offscreen murder of one character is never sufficiently dramatized to provide much ooomph to the story. And Mike Nichols, the director, seems a little hesitant, as if he can't believe he's got all this big talent on the set and he's calling for more fake blood and could someone please spread some Vaseline on Jack's fangs so that they gleam more in the light.

He doesn't quite deliver wholeheartedly on the werewolf myth, as if he's too refined to believe in it. Think of Joe Dante's brilliant "The Howling," still the best wolf man movie ever made: Dante gave you what you paid for, human beings exploding wetly into huge and violent animals, seething with animal power, beyond the scope of any morality. Or think also of Neil ("Crying Game") Jordon's brilliant little fable based on Little Red Riding Hood, "The Company of Wolves," which played with the erotic possibilities inherent in the genre. Again, Nichols is too fastidious to explore such materials without worrying what people will say.

Nichols ends up with a dither of a story, in which a competing wolf man shows up, and the film bumbles into a ludicrous contest in which two body-doubles in very bad wolf man makeup rip up and paw each other in slow motion -- it's like Michael Landon from "I Was a Teenage Werewolf" fighting himself.


Starring Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer

Directed by Mike Nichols

Released by Columbia


** 1/2

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