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‘Wolf’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 17, 1994

What's really surprising about "Wolf" -- in which Manhattan book editor Jack Nicholson gets nipped by a lupus then starts looking like a roadie for ZZ Top -- is how long the movie staves off its inevitable collapse.

The first half of the movie is exhilarating, scary and believable. While driving down a snowy road, Nicholson accidentally strikes a wolf. When he gets out to inspect the fallen animal, it suddenly bites his hand and pads away into the night.

Nicholson returns to his working world, a nasty universe where his publishing company has been bought out by sleazy billionaire Christopher Plummer. Nicholson, a weatherbeaten senior editor with the kind of values no longer useful in modern-day publishing -- taste and individuality, for example -- loses his job to scheming hustler James Spader.

Meanwhile, odd sensations are wracking Nicholson's body. Reeling from one of these attacks, he bumps into Michelle Pfeiffer, Plummer's haughty, beautiful daughter. She gives him a pick-me-up shot of booze. He grabs her breasts involuntarily. And suddenly, a Beauty-and-the-Beast thing is born.

After taking a long snooze -- which lasts until the following night -- Nicholson wakes up a changed man. His sense of smell has become phenomenal. So has his ability to hear. He reads 60 pages of a manuscript -- without his reading glasses. He pounces amorously on his wife (Kate Nelligan) for the first time in years. ("You animal," she says later on his voice mail.) And he decides to get that job back, by going for the jugular.

"I feel, uh, good," he says with that trademark Jack smile.

The movie -- a reunion of "Carnal Knowledge" alums Nicholson, director Mike Nichols and cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno -- works beautifully when it's rooted in reality, when the Werewolf Thing functions as a multiple metaphor for unleashed-id sexuality and the law of the corporate jungle. It's the underlying threat of Nicholson's transformation that provides the atmosphere.

What happens thereafter is best left unrevealed. There are no prizes for guessing that the moon will loom large in Nicholson's life, or that special make-up superstar Rick Baker (who did the hairy-man stuff for "An American Werewolf in London") was hired for a reason. Unfortunately, as Nicholson loses his Darwinian foothold in life, the movie takes a backslide too.

There are other problems, mainly to do with Hollywood's inability to leave a story alone. After pulling the audience into a compelling situation, screenwriters Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick undo their work with pseudo-profundities, movie hokum and mis-characterization that well up like rabid spittle: Is the affliction a gift, a curse or a delusion? Can amulets, the power of love and Indian-accented mystics really ward off a condition as ingrained as a sexually transmitted disease?

Pfeiffer's presence seems more the result of agent negotiation than organic storytelling; her character is semi-believable at best -- a frigid princess, misunderstood by everyone but instantly amenable to Nicholson partly because there's schizophrenia in her family. Nelligan, Nicholson's wife, has a surprise development (no, she doesn't turn into a werewolf) that's nothing more than plot-convenient.

Spader is creepily effective as the ladder-climbing opportunist. He ought to be the poster boy for that T-shirt slogan "Die Yuppie Scum." As for Jack, nobody does it better. In a wonderful men's-room confrontation with Spader, he marks his territory in the way of all animals, and Spader is forced to dab his suede shoes with paper towels.

Unfortunately, the movie's big surprise -- and that's for paying moviegoers only -- throws "Wolf" among the "Godzillas." But by then, nothing really matters any more. Nichols has allowed "Wolf" to evolve from a well-mounted, supernatural drama to goofy camp. Perhaps the biggest howler of all is the way Jack can run like the wind and leap the equivalent of small buildings in a single bound. No amount of arty camerawork and slow motion is going to hide the fact that Nicholson could only achieve velocity by falling off a building.

"Wolf" contains sexual situations, violence, profanity and unsightly body hair.

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