Monday, February 15, 2010

The Wolfman

By Elise Nakhnikian

I guess the people who make movies have to pay their rent, just like the rest of us.

Or maybe the trouble started when director Mark Romanek and his cinematographer left The Wolfman due to “creative differences” with the producers. That’s usually a sign of a production in trouble. So is a delayed opening, and The Wolfman’s was delayed several times.

Whatever the reason, this clumsy remake resurrects an old film nobody was clamoring to see -- and it does a bad job of it. The Wolfman feels more like a story by a man who keeps losing control than a story about one.

Director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Jurassic Park III) specializes in retelling stories so familiar they almost feel like part of our genetic makeup. Sometimes it works – Hidalgo was a likeably cartoonish Western crossed with a Rudolph Valentino movie – but The Wolfman begs for a new twist it never gets.

When Mike Nichols made a werewolf movie in 1994, he juiced it up in part by letting Jack Nicholson scarf down the scenery as a put-upon man who discovers his inner alpha dog after he becomes a werewolf. Nichols and his screenwriters also added some zing to Wolf by landing a few jabs at the publishing industry and ruthlessly competitive yuppie types.

But The Wolfman doesn’t update its story or use it to explore any ideas, other than the notion that there’s a beast inside us all. It just tries to recreate Lon Chaney’s 1941 The Wolf Man with better makeup and special effects and a less sound-stagey feel. Only somewhere along the way, it loses its soul.

Set in Victorian England, the movie takes place largely inside one of those neglected old mansions so decrepit you wonder if anyone has ever taken a broom to the place. The camera, which likes to hug the ground and prowl about, presumably to give us a wolf’s-eye view, zeroes in early and often on the snarling heads of dead animals mounted on the walls, lest we miss the point – you know, savagery in the midst of civilization and all that.

Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) returns to this happy home first to mourn, then to investigate, and finally to avenge his brother’s death. He was summoned by the brother’s fiancĂ©e, Gwen (a criminally underused Emily Blunt), and I don’t think it’s spoiling any surprises to add that they soon fall in love – or that Lawrence finds out that his brother was killed by a werewolf whose gory rampages are terrorizing the village. Lawrence gets bitten and turns werewolf himself, cutting a bloody swath through the village whenever the moon is full.

This is all pretty standard stuff to anyone who’s ever seen a werewolf story, so what do the filmmakers do to make it worth watching? A few abortive attempts to be stylish, like a shot of Lawrence chasing Gwen along a ridge, the two silhouetted against the night sky, stick out like lumps in the porridge of this trendily desaturated palette. Danny Elfman’s score is surprisingly intrusive too, pushing itself to the forefront to broadcast a near-ceaseless SOS.

The dank gloom enveloping the village seems to have crept into the hearts of the actors. Nearly all of them look numbed-out and miserable, though Geraldine Chaplin is arrestingly beautiful and weird as a wise old Gypsy, and Hugo Weaving, who played the multiplying agent in The Matrix, oozes a similar blend of bureaucratic malevolence as the detective sent to stop the killer.

You’d think Anthony Hopkins would have fun as Lawrence’s creepy father, an icy-hearted autocrat given to pronouncements like “Never look back. The past is a wilderness of horror.” But he sleepwalks through the movie, frozen midway between campy and catatonic. “Look into my eyes. You see that I am quite dead,” he intones at one point. No kidding, dude.

But the real disappointment is Del Toro. With his sleepily watchful intensity, obvious intelligence, and narrow, hooded eyes, he could surely get seriously lupine, given half a chance. But the movie doesn’t give him much to do once he’s gone wild, other than howl in pain as he goes through the transformation and make like a paper shredder with his neighbors once it’s complete.

The actors were transformed into werewolves by old-school makeup guru Rick Baker, who created game-changing non-computer-generated special effects in Star Wars, Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, and Men in Black II – not to mention Wolf, An American Werewolf in London, and the TV series Werewolf.

His foam, fur, and dentures are augmented here by some computer-generated effects, but the two don’t meld well. The actors in werewolf makeup look and act vulnerable. A long fight between two werewolves at the end felt downright clumsy at times, more supermarket parking lot than supernatural. In contrast, the computer-generated beasts seem to recognize no physical limitations – including the laws of gravity.

The movie ends with another character about to become a werewolf. I sure hope that doesn’t mean they’re planning a sequel.

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