Well, I was just riffing on Nick Lowe’s “The Beast in Me” in my review of 44 Inch Chest a few days ago, and perhaps I should’ve saved it for this film, which takes the same idea all too literally. And yet, Lowe’s exemplary tune deserves better than to be linked to this severely flawed retread, so I probably made the right call. With all due respect to my man Berkeley — no offense intended, l’il buddy — sadly, Joe Johnston’s take on The Wolfman is a bit of a dog. In short, it’s exactly the sort of big budget, never-gelling misfire one would expect to get dumped in mid-February. (Let’s hope the same doesn’t hold true of next week’s Shutter Island.)
I should say up front that, while I’m the first to admit the vampire genre is completely played out at this cultural moment, I’m usually more of a Team Edward man when it comes to the classic movie monsters. With the notable exception of An American Werewolf in London and arguably that saucy, vaguely spastic Shakira video, I’ve never really been one for the lycanthropes. So, when it came to this top-of-the-line, period-faithful reboot of the werewolf fable, I wasn’t really looking for anything more than a passably entertaining B-movie out of the affair. (Put another way, I had no real wolf in this fight.)
Unfortunately, Joe Johnston’s Wolfman doesn’t get the job done even by that measly standard. I was hoping it would at least possess some of the ribald, over-the-top, campy fun of Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, which also featured Anthony Hopkins — there at his absolute hammiest. But this somehow turned out more like Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein — staid, stilted, and dull. This is in no small part due to the sloppy Andrew Kevin Walker/David Self script (the former of Se7en and Sleepy Hollow, the latter of Road to Perdition), which seems to be missing quite a bit of connective tissue — The movie just jumps haphazardly from beat to beat.
Moreover, as per Walker’s m.o. in particular, everybody’s far too grim-faced through this retelling. Ok, sure, if done well, this would be a horror story through and through. But this Big Bad Wolf is never once frightening, and all the entrails and viscera attending each graphic disembowlment can’t make up for that unfortunate fact. And yet, the movie doesn’t swing far enough in the other direction either. I mean, we have Anthony Hopkins and his Sikh manservant here, for Pete’s sake. And yet, even when the story moves to a Victorian-era asylum run by a Paul Reubens lookalike, there is no Joy in Mudville — it’s all sloppy dream sequences and abject medical horrors out of From Hell or a Cronenberg movie. So the film fails to find its camp side either.
Part of the overarching problem with The Wolfman is the stakes are unclear. Who exactly are we meant to be rooting for here? On one hand, we have thespian Lawrence Talbot (Benicio del Toro — he’ll flip ya for real), who — at the behest of his late sibling’s fiancee (Emily Blunt, phoning it in) — has returned from America to the moors to investigate his brother’s horrible death, and maybe reconcile with his whos-more-grizzled father (Hopkins) in the process. Spoiler — Talbot eventually becomes the wolfman (as back in 1941), and is none too happy about his midnight prowlings.
But then we have Detective Abberline of Scotland Yard (Hugo Weaving), who missed out on the Ripper and now wants to stop this rumored beast before he kills again. But he’s just enough of a jerk, particularly later on in the story, that one kinda wouldn’t mind seeing him on the wrong end of the fangs regardless. Other than that, and aside from Geraldine Chaplin showing up to offer a touch of class to the proceedings, there’s just a bunch of peasants and villagers out of stock British casting — sometimes even with torches and pitchforks in hand — who are basically little more than werewolf fodder.
The upshot being, every time the wolf must feed, there’s no real fear or excitement to be had, since we’re not particularly concerned about anyone’s well-being here. So, to review: The film isn’t scary, it isn’t fun, and it isn’t even exciting. And by the time [sizable spoiler, albeit one fully indicated by the trailers] it turns out Pa Talbot has a touch of the moon-madness too, the overarching story has become quite stupid. In fact, the final lobo-a-lobo — think Ang Lee’s Hulk — may constitute a new low for the werewolf kind, were it not for Underworld and likely whatever embarrassing shirtless shenanigans are going on over in the Twilight-verse.
So, anything good here? Well, the gaffers definitely brought their A-game, and power to them for that. (I’m not even being flippant — there’s some great work with shadows here.) Even the lighting aside, the movie does look quite good, although the recent Sherlock Holmes reboot stole much of The Wolfman‘s Victorian-era thunder in that regard. Joe Johnston nicely frames some very iconic shots of the werewolf in question (even if, sadly, the CGI and Rick Baker make-up often don’t mesh so well), and I liked that the movie played up the “lunatic” angle — the moon is a harsh mistress here, no doubt.
Finally, while I expected going in that Hopkins would be in full-on Pacino mode in terms of scenery-chewing here, and that Weaving would turn out to be the film’s secret weapon, it turns out I was quite wrong. Frankly, Weaving seems bored here, even coasting somewhat. While Hopkins, to his credit, actually even underplays his thankless role at times. Unlike most everyone else involved, he sometimes manages to give this otherwise-forgettable iteration of The Wolfman real claws.