The Wolfman (R)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
A man discovers that he is also a wolf. Hey, it happens. Just look at the last 75 years of movie history. Unfortunately, the first real problem with The Wolfman is how long it takes for the man to make that discovery.
Lawrence Talbot, a 19th-century American stage actor with a troubled family history, returns to his ancestral estate in England, on account of his brother having gone missing there. He finds relations with his father and his brother's fiancée to be strained, on account of his having contracted lycanthropy.
"Never look back, Lawrence," his father advises. "The past is a wilderness of horrors." So's the present, it turns out. But on the plus side, Lawrence has resources. Among other things, he is played by Benicio Del Toro.
Good casting. That's your first thought. Then maybe you realize it's the same thought you had in 1994 when Mike Nichols, a director who should know about these things — these things being, basically, men and their urges — put Jack Nicholson in Wolf.
Or maybe you hadn't thought about Nicholson at all, because that episode disappeared quietly from memory. Still, you're optimistic about this one. Because the same hopeful principle applies: Certain actors just ought to get the chance. Henry Hull more or less blew his in 1935, but Lon Chaney Jr. nailed it so well in 1941 that an archetype, not to mention a perennially merchandisable Universal Studios property, was born.
It's fair enough now to want to reclaim it. Kids these days, with their Harry Potter and their Twilight and their Underworld, don't realize how far back the whole werewolf thing goes. They neglect the ancestors. Their Michael J. Foxes, and Jason Batemans. Let alone the Michael Landons. Let alone the first generation. So now here's The Wolfman, with the archetype in the grotesquely distending, fur-sprouting hands of Benicio Del Toro.
Good, right? Sure, in theory. As is Anthony Hopkins as the distant father, Emily Blunt the brother's fiancée, and Hugo Weaving as the determined Scotland Yard inspector on Talbot's tail. Does he have a tail? Anyway, there's a precedent for the image of a hirsute Del Toro on the run in the woods, of course, as Steven Soderbergh's Che Guevara. But this is a different kind of legend.
He's best in the wordless closeups, when peering out from under those eyebrows or going through Wolfman motions: brooding, morphing, hurting, howling. He's less convincing with the line readings, partly because the lines aren't so convincing, either. Screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self have paid their respects to Curt Siodmak's 1941 The Wolf Man, but apparently haven't decided whether camp or reverence is the way to go — whether men and their urges even matter anymore.
The Wolfman's director is Joe Johnston, who shouldn't necessarily know about these things because he's used to making films like Jurassic Park III and Jumanji. Also because he wasn't even The Wolfman's original director. Yes, it was a troubled production.
All that's left now are a sooty old England apparently on loan from Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, a few cheap thrills lurking within Shelly Johnson's underlit cinematography and Danny Elfman's overbearing score, and the sad spectacle of an archetype reduced to the wrong kind of howler.