FILM / Who's afraid of Jack's wolf?: Reviews: Adam Mars-Jones on Wolf, with Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer; plus A Shadow of Doubt and Le Parfum d'Yvonne

The last member of the dog family to feature largely in a Mike Nichols film was the cute pooch in his laughable Regarding Henry. A director with a harsher conscience would have changed career at that point, but Nichols has persevered, and with Wolf has delivered his crispest film for a good while, at least since Working Girl and maybe since Silkwood. Something has undoubtedly gone wrong with Nichols since his auspicious beginnings - no one would seriously propose Wolf (15) as a worthy successor to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - but the film isn't a waste of time, and works rather well for about two- thirds of its length as a comedy of business life. For a horror film or a serious exploration of the divided nature of modern man, you need to look elsewhere.

The casting of Jack Nicholson is the film's trump card but also its limitation. We believe Nicholson as a wild man, we just don't buy him as anything else. His character in Wolf, Will Randall, is supposedly defeated by life before he gets a transformational bite taken out of him: gentlemanly in work (he's a highly regarded book editor), faithful to his wife, a little tired. He even smokes a pipe.

Nicholson's version of the anti- hero invited and rejected sympathy in a different rhythm from Brando's, but De Niro's arrival a few years later left his dangerousness looking a little tame. If you look at The Shining and Raging Bull from the same year, it is De Niro's performance that is truly frightening, and he isn't even the one who's in a horror film.

Becoming a wolf seems, in Nicholson's acting job, a lot like becoming Jack Nicholson. When Will Randall starts to grow the hairs of the dog that bit him, he gets to behave more like a carnivore in the workplace, he stops being shackled by his marriage, and his sharpened sense of smell makes the pipe that always seemed an awkward accessory repugnant to him. What is missing is any sense of loss by his transformation. Will's pains are only growing pains, when you get right down to it.

Jeff Goldblum's character in The Fly was locked into a grotesquely tragic set of changes, but here Nicholson is embarked on an adventure that is also a shedding of illusions. The plot (screenplay by Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick) contrives things so that the newly energised Will discovers he has been living in a fool's paradise. His previous life is shown up as so much vegetarian wishful thinking. If the film lacks any real tension, though, at least this is not one of Nicholson's self-parody performances. He hoists a trademark eyebrow only once, and his face registers smug lust only when it is appropriate.

Michelle Pfeiffer was blooded as an actress playing opposite Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick. In those days she was barely able to hold her own on screen with the likes of Susan Sarandon, but since then she has moved up several leagues and has gained a lot of confidence. The director treats her to a teasingly understated star entrance, her face out of shot even after her dialogue has begun. Her character, Laura Alden, is an embittered rich girl, slow to respond to Will's attentiveness. Even when she has started to tell him that he is a good man, and that this is something exotic to her, she doesn't turn to mush altogether. When he says he thought only evil people were cursed, she's capable of murmuring, 'Oh no, I could have told you that. The worst things happen to the best people.'

In most ways, Wolf is a distinctly old-fashioned movie, a regressive piece of work even for a film about regression. Some of this may have to do with a desire to retain its precious 15 certificate. When Will and Laura start getting to grips with each other, the camera tactfully withdraws from their growls of foreplay and looks through the window for one more atmospheric view of New York. But other ingredients of the film are aesthetic choices. Ennio Morricone's music is so thoroughly a pastiche of the horror movie soundtrack that it has more or less exhausted all the cliches by the end of the first scene: creepily descending chromatics, eerie sustained high string notes, obsessive harpsichord ostinatos, panicky pizzicatos.

There's no denying that Wolf gives a contemporary audience less for its special effects dollar than it demands. Rick Baker, who was responsible for the effects, got his start on the 1976 King Kong, and is a great believer in prosthetic make-up and body-suits and golden contact lenses. Becoming a werewolf, as he sees it, seems to involve letting your sideboards grow to 1970s length and doing occasional wildly athletic leaps in long shot. His work on An American Werewolf in London was much more sophisticated, though it did include a memorable shot of the hero in mid-transformation, encumbered by a pair of legs that were supposedly full of wolfish power but looked more like the bottom half of a Bugs Bunny costume.

The whole tone of Wolf seems flat when you set it beside Joe Dante's 1980 The Howling, where the chief werewolf had written a book on the need to express the beast within, and appeared on chat shows to promote it. In the late- 1970s, as you may remember, even jogging was marketed as an atavistic need, something your inherited predatory body badly wanted to do without being able to tell you so. But the Iron John men's movement in America has made such headway that satire on these subjects must be muted.

The best part of the film is the part that combines lycanthropy with office politics. Will belatedly discovers that publishing is a dog- eat-dog world, and that if you can't beat them, you might as well join them. The publishing world of Macleish House boasts the film's most striking location, a late-Victorian atrium that is both ravishingly and latently hellish, and also its most preposterous concentration of acting talent. David Hyde Pierce (Miles from television's Frasier) is always good value, and even if Eileen Atkins is under- used as a secretary she has at least one moment of glory.

Prunella Scales contributes a skittish cameo as an Irish novelist, full of blarney to the very cleavage, that may have Edna O'Brien reaching for a stiff drink or alternatively her lawyer's phone number. But the revelation of the film is James Spader, as Will's scheming deputy. Spader is one of the few modern actors who can play virtue without being embarrassing, and it's fascinating to see him use the same mannerisms in a portrait of a total weasel. This isn't self-parody, though, but a resourceful reworking of a successful persona. Jack Nicholson became a star with an epic piece of upstaging in Easy Rider, and though he's not yet a spent force it's ominous that Spader should come so close to stealing Wolf clean away from him.

(Photograph omitted)

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