Michelle Pfeiffer, Jack Nicholson and the passionate animal inside him, hellbent on getting out. "Wolf" sounds so simple, so effective, so foolproof. Would that it were.
Directed by Mike Nichols and written by novelist Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick (with an uncredited assist from Elaine May), "Wolf's" problem, as those very different sensibilities indicate, is that it can't seem to decide what kind of a movie it wants to be.
Rather than the straight-ahead endeavor the premise promises, "Wolf" meanders down several paths. At varying times it is a satirical look at New York publishing, a star vehicle, a meditation on the nature of disease and immortality and even, in its spare time, a standard-issue werewolf horror thriller.
Some of these sections are effective, some less so, but they pull in so many different directions that finally all they have in common is how awkwardly they mix with one another. And without coherence, a movie that is only sporadically involving is the inevitable result.
Part of the difficulty with "Wolf" is that whatever its aspirations are, it must be firmly grounded in the horror genre to have any effectiveness at all. But neither the screenwriters nor Nichols, who considers the movie "a poetic expression of an inner state," possess the requisite touch, dooming sections of the picture to be flat or silly rather than gripping.
"Wolf" begins traditionally enough, with a man driving alone through a cold and snowy Vermont night. He is New York publishing executive Will Randall (Nicholson), who has so much trouble coping with the elements that his car hits what looks to be a wolf. And when Randall gets out to investigate, the beast retaliates by taking a bite out of his hand.
Back in Manhattan, no one believes the animal really was a wolf and Randall is too busy with his own crises at the publishing firm MacLeish House, where he is editor in chief and his friend and protege Stewart Swinton (James Spader) is head of marketing, to think about it much.
Newly acquired by pompous billionaire Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer), one of those who believes that taste and individuality are literary handicaps, MacLeish is in the throes of an amusingly portrayed shake-up that threatens to affect everyone's future.
But while Randall tries to cope with interoffice politics, he starts to notice changes in his life, changes, the film interestingly claims, that may not be all bad. His eyesight and hearing get more acute, his sense of smell heightens, he even edits copy at a greatly increased rate and finds a way to open wife Charlotte's (Kate Nelligan) robe with his teeth.
"The wolf passed something along to me," he tells new friend Laura Alden (Pfeiffer), the billionaire's bored and sarcastic daughter, in one of the film's sporadic philosophical moments. "But I'm afraid it will have a price."
Even with a prop pipe and an exhausted voice, Nicholson is problematic at best in the film's initial stages, when the script insists he is the kindest, most decent and civilized literary editor in all of Manhattan, which is casting against type with a vengeance.
Invariably an involving actor to watch, Nicholson is adept and surprisingly low-key and subtle in many of the scenes that require him to increasingly feel the presence of the wolf within. The joke of the transformation, however, is that as Will Randall becomes less like himself, he becomes more like Jack Nicholson, albeit a Nicholson who is thankfully resistant to the fearful extremes of mugging.
And, in the star vehicle, "Jack's back and Michelle's got him" part of the movie, Nicholson and Pfeiffer play nicely together, though the part of Laura is uninvolving enough to make it uncertain why Pfeiffer took it on in the first place.
Also uncertain is "Wolf's" treatment of the conventional horror moments that any film of this type must have. Despite Rick Baker's restrained makeup, seeing Nicholson's Randall sniff the air, curl his lip and engage in some of the bloodier aspects of werewolf behavior is much more unconvincing than it needs to be.
Perhaps, the odd affecting moment like Randall's dialogue with werewolf expert Dr. Vijay Alezias (Om Puri) aside, it is not really possible to make a genteel werewolf movie. In any event, with its final third focused firmly on disturbing physical violence, "Wolf" resists carrying even that notion all the way to the end. Though its premise must have had intellectual appeal to all involved, "Wolf" doesn't feel like anyone believed its story could really happen, and that is a tough barrier to overcome.
* MPAA rating: R for language and "werewolf attacks." Times guidelines: The attacks are bloody and there is an extended and graphic rape scene. 'Wolf'
Jack Nicholson: Will Randall
Michelle Pfeiffer: Laura Alden
James Spader: Stewart Swinton
Kate Nelligan: Charlotte Randall
Richard Jenkins: Detective Bridger
Christopher Plummer: Raymond Alden
A Douglas Wick production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Mike Nichols. Producer Douglas Wick. Executive producers Neil Machlis, Robert Greenhut. Screenplay Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick. Cinematographer Giuseppi Rotunno. Editor Sam O'Steen. Costumes Ann Roth. Special makeup effects Rick Baker. Music Ennio Morricone. Production design Bo Welch. Art director Tom Duffield. Set decorator Linda DeScenna. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.