Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Monday, June 30, 2014
How We Lower Our Sights
June 17, 1994: the now-legendary O.J. Simpson slow speed Bronco chase. The world was riveted. Everyone was watching. And yet you just know that there were a few people out there who missed it because they were in a movie theater seeing Mike Nichols’ WOLF which opened that day. The summer of ‘94 is a time that I have particularly vivid recollections of since I was actually working at a bookstore job in Brentwood. It was in the same shopping plaza where Nicole Brown stopped off for Häagen-Dazs on the way home, right across the street from Mezzaluna and just a few blocks away from 876 S. Bundy Drive. Kind of like being in Dallas when the assassination happened, if you get my meaning. I’ve got a few stories that I used at cocktail parties through the years about encounters I had with certain people connected to what had happened (ask me some other time) but none of them have to do with the Bronco chase since I wasn’t around--I had the day off, part of which was spent across town in the first showing of WOLF at the Cinerama Dome earlier that afternoon, of course. But the fact remains that this is one of those things where the release of the movie has been inexorably tied into what was happening that day and for all we know caused the film to slip through the cracks for some people. Ultimately making a not-bad, not great $65 million at the box office, WOLF is a good film, one with goals and thoughts behind it but for a variety of reasons feels like something that was aiming at multiple targets and didn’t quite hit each of them. Compelling all the way through but maybe not completely fulfilling, twenty years later it still engages with a wit to its look at the world that helps greatly. It’s clearly from another time—very much a pre-O.J. film released just as O.J. happened, if you will, and even if Mike Nichols’ ultimate goal in exploring the material doesn’t feel one hundred percent clarified it plays now as refreshingly adult even if the intellectualization behind the approach doesn’t hold all the way to the end.
Shortly after being bitten by a wolf up in Vermont while driving home New York book editor Will Randall (Jack Nicholson) is informed of the termination of his position after billionaire tycoon Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer) has bought up the company. He’s even faced with the humiliation that protégé Stuart Swinton (James Spader) is to replace him and although immediately resigned to this fate Will’s personality soon begins to undergo extreme changes which leads to learning a secret involving wife Charlotte (Kate Nelligan) and his decision to finally take action over his place at the company. Things change for Will even more when he meets Alden’s wild card daughter Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer), finding in her another person he can actually talk to and connect with, just as the animal side of him brought out by the wolf bite is beginning to make itself known.
Not even 15 minutes into WOLF Jack Nicholson’s Will Randall lays out an intriguing thesis: “You could make the case that the world has already ended. That art is dead….that instead of art we have pop culture, daytime TV, gay senior citizens, women who have been raped by their dentists confiding in Oprah, an exploration in depth of why women cut off their husbands’ penis…” Spoken by a character who believes with reason that his world is about to collapse in on itself, it partly works as what WOLF is about but even more than that is a reminder of how the film opened on one of the key pop culture events of the last decade of the twentieth century, an event that led to most of us hearing the name “Kardashian” for the first time, where everything would become one giant hellish reality show. The end of the world, you could say. Bit player Allison Janney (THE WEST WING still five years in the future), presumably playing some sort of la-di-da New York media type, tries to naively argue that money doesn’t imply ruthless ambition which is something that even the hardened billionaire she’s talking to doesn’t try to deny. WOLF is aware that polite, pipe-smoking way of doing business is fast on its way out, equating what is to come with a certain animalistic way of humanity, where talent doesn’t matter anymore, where the notion of civility flat out doesn’t matter. The “old fashioned way” of begging isn’t how it’s done anymore and what happens to Will isn’t just inevitable but in some ways actually for the best if this is what the world is to become, turning him into a wolf but also a man, with a capital “M”, for the very first time and not just a polite suit.
On a conceptual level WOLF plays as a horror film made by someone with no particular affinity for the genre or even awareness of how to pull off things like jump scares but is presumably attracted to the concept anyway, possibly with other goals in mind. Kubrick’s THE SHINING, coincidentally also starring Jack Nicholson, certainly contains elements that allow it to fall into this category and based on WOLF I don’t think that Mike Nichols has disdain for horror so much as him never having given the subject much thought at all. It really feels like Mike Nichols making a Mike Nichols film set in a Mike Nichols world where people drink fresh ground coffee from Zabar’s invaded by something else, a straight horror film crossed with the metaphor of embracing one’s inner beast in this day and age. There’s a constant feeling that the director is trying to bring something to the material above and beyond just shooting the script he was given (more than you could maybe say about several other latter day Mike Nichols films) it’s just that he’s not sure exactly what that should be. Since it doesn’t seem to know the basic pattern of a horror film it doesn’t know what clichés it should or shouldn’t ignore which allows for its own unique approach how characters interact in ways. The themes are there, very much so, but it also feels like through multiple rewrites and reedits and working out the effects and all that by a certain point exploring the metaphorical implications had to be dropped in favor of just making the film and getting it finished. Which had to be done, of course, and it’s not particularly surprising that the result isn’t a straight ahead horror film that goes heavy on the gore.
What Mike Nichols is interested in is going to be more interesting than what he’s not, what he can immediately connect with is going to be that much more tangible cinematically. But it does leave WOLF slightly wanting in the end, an array of engaging elements dropped during the second half as the film closes in on a conflict with just a handful of characters along with a climax, apparently greatly reworked during production, that is maybe a little too rote in how some of it plays out. Nichols seems to embrace the imagery and how the mood brought on by Ennio Morricone’s score affects the multiple helicopter shots gliding through New York at night (something else that gets me to think of THE SHINING) plus to his credit makes the ‘Jack Nicholson is a werewolf!’ element of it all much more low key and ambivalent than you would expect. But it’s almost a shade too polite making the occasional overly hyper zoom to underline something feel not quite right as Nichols searches for something to do with his camera. The wit and energy of the publishing house setting is what has the most zip to it all and, maybe like Nichols, I’m more intrigued by how the great director of photography Giuseppe Rotunno shoots the famous Bradbury Building (a familiar L.A. location even though the film is set in New York) than the delirium of the wolf’s runs through the woods at night.
As the film goes on the camera seems to push into close-ups more and more, omitting the world around the few characters, and since Nichols is definitely a director who knows what to do with close-ups, that’s where he finds the most to be interested by. When he’s not in his element the ideas just aren’t there in the same way so when the climactic action kicks in it feels like he’s finally agreed to make the film the studio probably wanted all along. The werewolf makeup effects feature the expected strong work by Rick Baker (along with some intriguingly subtle changes to Nicholson over the course of the film) but I don’t think Nichols has much interest in that either. It’s the intimate moments that have the most impact, such as Nicholson’s confrontation with Spader at a urinal that includes a particularly good offhand mention of “asparagus” to cap the scene. In comparison, the climactic showdown is a little more what’s expected and while it actually doesn’t go on forever like such a sequence might today in my memory it sort of seems like it does. It’s not a bad climax, as these things go, it’s professionally done. It’s the climax to a movie. It just may not have been the right climax for this movie as much as it was the right climax for a major star vehicle released in the summer of ’94.
Much of it remains intriguing, more on a human level than anything and thanks to the lunchtime conversation between Nicholson and Pfeiffer few other films ever made have made me want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich so badly. As the connection builds between Will Randall, a good man fighting against the wolf inside him, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Morose Pixie Dream Woman he simply tells her exactly what’s happening to him, with no thoughts of trying to conceal the truth like other films might waste time with. She accepts it, with thoughts of supernatural never coming into the dialogue and the chemistry between the two actors as they play this material is palpable, unexpected in how it comes off. Elaine May reportedly worked on the script (credited to Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick) and the recognizable sharpness of her dialogue brings the drama into focus so it pops for much of the first half even during the small moments like the dryness of Ron Rifkin’s doctor or how Will is continually trying to talk his way around what’s obviously happening, looking for some sort of rational explanation that “medical science has overlooked”. The bulk of his drawn out visit to Om Puri’s Dr. Alezais is almost too sedate in comparison blatantly laying out the themes in a way that feel designed to get people to check out of the film for a few minutes. Maybe Dick Miller’s Walter Paisley from THE HOWLING wouldn’t have been such a bad idea here (Nicholson and Miller together would at the very least be a cool Corman connection) and while WOLF definitely gets points for taking the serious approach, it that sense it doesn’t always have the right maverick sensibilities to fully click.
It’s an understated, mannered film about a world that is beginning to burst apart at the seams but no one reacts to such changes with anything other than mild puzzlement, another element that removes the events from horror movie logic—the matter of fact response by David Hyde Pierce (FRASIER had just completed its first season when this was released) to Will no longer needing his glasses and the cop played by David Schwimmer (right before FRIENDS premiered) more concerned about his handcuffs than the impossible event he’s just witnessed happen. Even the police investigation during the final third as Richard Jenkins’ detective comes to the hotel room to inform Randall of the brutal murder of the wife who has been having an affair with a younger man (yet more shades of O.J., even if the reality of that event doesn’t quite match up) is portrayed as dry as possible so the big final showdown between werewolves, a word that I’m not sure is ever spoken, can’t help but seem ordinary in comparison. A widely circulated still not in the film showing Nicholson about to transform while Pfeiffer lays beside him in bed speaks to how low key the approach ultimately became. Once the subtext becomes text and the transformation as actually taken place it’s not as intriguing anymore. But the film’s own curiosity about its themes remains intriguing throughout. Just as Will Randall tries to piece together the truth of what’s really happening to him it’s a film that is always trying to understand what it is and it makes the end result that much more compelling even if it doesn’t always hold.
Jack Nicholson gives an intriguingly low key performance, not only going against the expected but seeming continually engaged, just as curious about how to explore what’s happening to Will Randall as the character is, always holding the reality of the film together. Michelle Pfeiffer makes sense out of what seems to be practically an impossible role, barely a person at all, giving both her co-star and the film a surprising amount of empathy, indicating how she’s just off enough herself to be the right woman for him and it’s maybe one of her most underappreciated performances. James Spader approaches his role as trying to be the uber-version of his familiar yuppie scum portrayal—compared with characters he played both before and after this I don’t know if that quite comes off but it is a nice turn, playing him as an asshole who not only knows he’s one but revels in the mindgames that it entails. Christopher Plummer brings the expected chilly intelligence to his billionaire that balances just enough disinterest in all this publishing stuff to get momentarily amused by the back-stabbing around him while Kate Nelligan as Randall’s wife has kind of a thankless role but she nevertheless kills it in her last scene. Nichols makes something out of the bit roles as well, particularly Ron Rifkin, David Hyde Pierce and Eileen Atkins as Randall’s loyal secretary. Playing a stock investigating cop role, Richard Jenkins becomes an unexpected off-kilter glue for the film in its last half hour, a refreshing link to the real world while the plot gears of the climax have to turn and Elaine May makes an uncredited vocal appearance as a hotel phone operator—hearing her chipper voice immediately after a brutal werewolf attack says about as much about the dual nature of the film, and the approach taken to it, as anything.
WOLF is a film that I still feel an inquisitive fondness for as I continue to try to find my way through it, trying to understand what it is as it fights against expectations. The end result may be uncertain, it may be battling against its own two halves, but it seems fascinated by that battle. The incessant, haunting score composed by Ennio Morricone which provides the film with an undeniable shade of melancholy that I don’t think is present otherwise feels like a part of that battle as well. But melancholy for what—for Will Randall? For the unexpected romance between the two leads? For revisiting this film 20 years later? It’s about a lot of things that don’t exist anymore, whether the idea of a summer movie aimed at adults, a portrayal of a New York media world that I imagine would be somewhat different now or just people in the world in general. Maybe it’s a reminder of what things were like for a brief period back in the early 90s. One of the final images of the film indicates that the transformation we’ve been witnessing for the past two hours is now complete. If a similar transformation began within the world we live on June 17 1994, I can’t help but worry that we still haven’t witnessed the end of that particular metamorphosis.