He’s a wolf – and not just in the bedroom! Jack Nicholson’s turn as publisher Will Randall in the Mike Nichols werewolf flick Wolf is, well, a Jack Nicholson performance. He’s sleazy, hairy, and manic as ever here, and so your enjoyment of Wolf might depend entirely upon your enjoyment of Jack Nicholson. There are other things floating around in the movie to distract you, but Jack’s at the heart and soul of everything for better or worse.
Nicholson’s Will encounters a black wolf one night and suffers a bite to his hand. He soon encounters the slinky Laura Alden, played slinkily by Michelle Pfeiffer, and the two begin a romantic relationship. Meanwhile, as Will’s animalistic tendencies simmer to a boil within him, James Spader’s office yuppie Stewart Swinton schemes viciously for Will’s job at the publishing firm. These three characters swirl around each other as the full moon rises, and eventually Joker and Catwoman and Ultron all meet for a fateful reunion.
So is Wolf actually good, or is it B-movie horror trash? Interestingly, really strong arguments can be made for both cases. The first hour of Wolf is pretty razor-sharp: Nichols delights in the blacks and yellows of a bedroom lit by the harvest moon, and the cinematography is damn-near beautiful; writer Jim Harrison (who penned Legends of the Fall) focuses as much on the back-and-forth of workplace politicking as on the back-and-forth between man and wolf, and the parallels he draws are amazing; to boot, a sparkling Ennio Morricone score doesn’t hurt. These guys make Wolf extremely palatable, and Nicholson knocks what they give him out of the park. The metaphorical rise of the wolf is handled with a subtle sophistication by the leading man, apparent only when you consider how hammy and over-the-top the entire thing could have been.
…and then that metaphor blows out the window, Jack becomes a full-blown werewolf, and all bets are off. Hammy and over-the-top now seem like understatements. If that weren’t enough, James Spader and Michelle Pfeiffer become werewolves too. Biting, howling, and much gnashing of teeth ensues, and the movie ends in a somewhat abrupt manner. So what the heck happened? Was the first half a fluke? One might imagine that this turn for the worse played better on the page, that the transition from high concept to cheap horror just wasn’t as jarring. Overall, though, it’s majorly disappointing.
Let’s take that first half of Wolf and remember things that way, maybe slap a new ending on the thing and go about our business. Nicholson is the book publisher with the wolf inside of him, Pfeiffer is the slinky cat to his dog, Spader is the territorial challenger to the alpha male. Wolf, this way, is almost a satire of the werewolf/monster genre, one set in a foggy modern city in America where corporate dealings resemble the food chain more and more. It’s a commentary – not so much in blatant action as in tone and mood – on man’s throne atop the animal kingdom and the doglike rungs that hang not far below. Glancing down from that perch and wondering about (and fearing) the descent from humanity is where the power of Wolf stems from, and it’s that power that evaporates when the descent actually occurs.