A man discovers that he is also a wolf. Hey, it happens. Just look at the last 75 years of movie history. Probably the first real problem with “The Wolfman” is how long it takes for the man to make the discovery. We’ve all been waiting.
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 there having gone missing. Then he finds relations with his father and his brother’s fiancee to be strained, on account of having contracted lycanthropy.
“Never look back, Lawrence,” father distantly advises. “The past is a wilderness of horrors.” So’s the present, it turns out. But on the plus side, Lawrence has certain resources. Among other things, he is played by Benicio Del Toro.
Good casting. That’s the first thing you think. Then maybe you think that’s the same thing you thought in 1994 when Mike Nichols, a director who should know about these things, put Jack Nicholson in “Wolf.” These things being, basically, men and their urges.
Or maybe you hadn’t thought about Nicholson in ‘94 at all, because that episode had gone quietly from memory, which should tell you how well it went over in the first place. 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 really goes. They neglect the ancestors. The Michael J. Foxes, and Jason Batemans too. Let alone the Michael Landons. Let alone the elders of the first generation. So now here’s “The Wolfman.” Now the archetype, not to mention the perennially merchandisable Universal Studios property, is 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 as the brother’s fiancee, 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, in 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 otherwise going through the Wolfman motions: brooding, morphing, hurting, howling. Let’s say 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 original, “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, with crew replacements, release postponements, redesigns, reshoots, and now a real air of resignation.
All that’s left 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 fact of the archetype reduced to the wrong kind of howler.