Picks and Pans Review: Wolf

updated 06/27/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/27/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kate Nelligan, Christopher Plummer, James Spader

Almost every movie Jack Nicholson appears in represents, for him, a night to howl. But he gels to snarl, stalk, pounce, eviscerate and chew in this original, upscale werewolf movie, which is 5 percent scary but 95 percent entertaining.

With his normal feral intensity and lupine features, Nicholson always looks like the animated Disney Big Bad Wolf of the '30s. And he transforms into a werewolf with only minimal help from special effects wizard Rick Baker, recalling Spencer Tracy's unaided Jekyll-to-Hyde metamorphosis in 1941's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Nicholson plays a Manhattan book editor who hits a wolf while driving in Vermont and is bitten by the animal while trying to help it. On returning to New York City, he has a mostly bad week—turning into a murderous werewolf whenever the moon is full; losing his job in a takeover by rapacious business tycoon Plummer; and realizing his wife of 16 years, Nelligan, is having an affair with his professional rival, Spader, a ruthless marketing whiz. But he also meets the unattached Pfeiffer, Plummer's daughter.

Director Mike Nichols and writers Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick stop short of having Nicholson and Pfeiffer lope off into the sunset, paw in paw. But when they're not taking the werewolf business straight, they try to concoct a romantic comedy out of a horror scenario—wolf bites girl, wolf loses girl, wolf gets girl. The humor is restricted mostly to stray wisecracks aimed at gratuitous, if tempting, targets—Oprah Winfrey, Judith Krantz, the Time Warner megaglomerate and the Hair Club for Men.

The film slows painfully whenever Nichols strains to make implicit comparisons between Nicholson's rip-throat werewolf behavior and the cutthroat modern business world. The movie buys into the standard werewolf mythology in most respects—an individual wolf is not very dangerous, wolves being pack-hunting animals—but Nicholson-as-wolf is a terror, able at times to leap 20 feet in the air from a standing start (though he's noticeably unable to do so at others, when he is trapped behind low fences) and evincing a supernatural strength. On the other hand, they ignore the old rule that says werewolves can be killed only with silver objects.

George Waggner's moody, thoughtful 1941 horror classic The Wolf Man remains the best werewolf movie. This film is less well cast and surprisingly less sexy, but it's more colorful (mostly more bloody), brighter, more playful and faster, with an appealingly twisty ending. Chacun à son loup-garou. (R)

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