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'Wolf' (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 17, 1994

"Wolf," the new Mike Nichols film starring Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer, doesn't take a straight horror film approach to the werewolf genre, and it's not a jokey sendup either. It's something fresher and infinitely more inventive -- a satire about how to climb the corporate ladder that uses werewolf lore only as its metaphorical springboard. In its own delightfully peculiar way, the film is the only one of its kind

ever made -- a horror film about office politics.

What Nichols has attempted here -- with the assistance of screenwriters Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick -- is the filmmaking equivalent of a high-wire act. The result is a sometimes shaky, always enchanting Beauty and the Beast story for grown-ups that is the very essence of smart fun -- droll, sophisticated and surprisingly, pleasingly light. The movie isn't wholly great; it starts to unravel just after the midway point. Still, there are charms enough all the way through to make it the most seductive, most enjoyable film of the summer.

Topping this list of enticements is Wolfman Jack himself, who, though playing a beast, hasn't seemed so engaging and effortlessly human in years. Nicholson plays Will Randall, the respected senior editor of a Manhattan publishing firm -- and from the look of it, this low-energy, almost depressive character with his pipe and corduroys was conceived as a sort of inverse joke on the actor's larger-than-life hipster image. At the beginning of the film, the firm is in the process of a corporate takeover and Randall is about to lose his job to a more ambitious, younger colleague (James Spader). It's not hard to see why. For all his "taste and individuality" -- the qualities that takeover tycoon Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer) praises in his distinguished employee just before giving him the boot -- Randall is pretty much a spent force.

Before long, though, Randall is tossing away the bifocals and shocking his wife, Charlotte (Kate Nelligan), by undoing her robe with his teeth. Feeling frisky as a cub, he also decides to fight for his job, even going so far as to challenge Alden by threatening to take his authors with him.

Of course, the youthful surges of vitality and confidence could have logical explanations, but somehow Randall is feeling better than well. When his senses become so keen that he can eavesdrop on conversations three floors below or even sniff out his wife from all the way across Central Park, he begins to wonder if the bite he received recently from a wolf up in Vermont might have something to do with it.

Up to the point where Randall begins his moonlight prowls, Nichols's direction is as deft and intelligent as it's ever been. And even afterward, when the story focuses on the characters -- specifically, on Randall's developing relationship with Alden's rich-bitch daughter, Laura (Pfeiffer) -- the film maintains its keen satirical edge. The picture toys with an alluring modern theme: Just how friendly should we be with the animal within? The main attraction, though, is Nicholson -- first, last and always -- and it's his modulated suavity and wit that make the film so sublimely entertaining.

In recent years, the actor seems to have been drawn almost exclusively to clown roles; even his blustering career soldier in "A Few Good Men" was a histrionic buffoon. As Randall, though, he lets his voice drop down into a relaxed, sexy growl. Though Randall becomes more formidable as the movie progresses, Nicholson sustains his low-key, self-effacing style, and somehow the more he keeps his natural dynamism in check, the more his charisma increases. Undeniably, the story requires a metamorphosis into a fearsome black wolf, furry paws, fangs and all, but the makeup never takes over the performance. It's the man we're drawn to here, and strangely enough -- especially for Nicholson -- he's a good man. It's virgin ground for Nicholson, and he uses it to give his greatest performance since "Prizzi's Honor."

As the world-weary Laura, Pfeiffer doesn't have nearly as much to work with, and so, ultimately, she lends more of her beauty than she does her talent. But with beauty like hers it would seem churlish to complain. Even so, she does bring a ring of true emotion to this bad girl's jaded snarl. Chemistry between the two stars is essential here, and Pfeiffer makes us believe in this improbable love affair.

It's Pfeiffer's combination of compassion and terror that carries the last section of the film and gives it class. Otherwise -- with Nicholson locked up in a stable like a junkie in rehab -- the film might have deteriorated into a campy joke. It seems almost always on the verge of it anyway. In truth, when "Wolf" tries to be a werewolf movie it falls on its face. The special effects are cheesy and unconvincing, and the makeup is ludicrous. (In Nicholson's case, it makes him look more like a cranky pirate than a demon wolf.) Only up in those ruthless glass towers are the movie's fragile conceits completely in balance.

Even when it's bad, though, "Wolf" is bad in ways that are appealingly unexpected. Traditionally, it's the Beauty's love that tames the Beast, but "Wolf" provides a neat new variation -- one that's satisfying and full of weirdly sexy possibilities.

Wolf is rated R for language and adult situations.

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