A man discovers that he’s a wolf. Hey, it happens.
But The Wolfman’s first problem is how long it takes him to discover it. Lawrence Talbot, a 19th-century American stage actor, returns to his troubled family life in England after his brother goes missing. Relations are strained further with his father and brother’s fiancée after Talbot contracts lycanthropy. “Never look back, Lawrence,” his father advises. “The past is a wilderness of horrors.” So is the present, it turns out.
Of the few good choices a rotating production team made in The Wolfman, the best was casting Benicio Del Toro in the title role.
The same reasonable principle that’s driven so many movies applies to The Wolfman: Certain actors just ought to get the chance to play werewolves. Henry Hull more or less blew his in 1935’s Werewolf in London, but Lon Chaney Jr. nailed it so well in 1941’s The Wolf Man that an archetype, not to mention a perennially merchandisable Universal Studios property, was born. So now there’s The Wolfman. Now the archetype, not to mention the perennially merchandisable Universal Studios property, is in Benicio Del Toro’s grotesque, furry hands.
The rest of the casting is good in theory, with 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?) But then again, good casting may have come to mind when Mike Nichols cast Jack Nicholson in 1994’s Wolf. 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.
Director Joe Johnston doesn’t necessarily know about the things that have made other werewolf movies great—namely, men and their urges—because he’s used to making films like Jurassic Park III and Jumanji. And 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.
As Talbot, Del Toro is best in the wordless close-ups, when peering out from under those eyebrows or otherwise going through the Wolfman motions: brooding, morphing, hurting, howling. He’s less convincing when speaking, 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 go with camp or reverence—whether men and their urges even matter anymore.
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 that the archetype has been reduced to the wrong kind of howler.
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