Rent: 'The Wolfman'

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Universal Pictures

If you want to watch the enjoyably stupid, impeccably art-directed The Wolfman, a remake of the 1941 film, it might not be so easy. First of all, Netflix subscribers will have to look elsewhere—for now, at least: The online service now streams more titles from the Universal library, but that also means it must wait a full four weeks before offering the studio's new titles for rental on disc. Nevertheless, The Wolfman can be found at actual, physical video stores, in addition to Amazon and iTunes, where it can be downloaded.

But then you must choose between the theatrical version (103 minutes) and the extended "Unrated" director's cut (119 minutes). The availability of movies on multiple platforms in multiple versions is theoretically a good thing, but windows of exclusivity and transparent sales gambits—I suppose the true Wolfman completist, if there is one, must own both edits—have only made home viewing a more bewildering prospect than ever.

So don't go too far out of your way for The Wolfman, but if you happen across it, don't dismiss it out of hand. This movie is more mildly amusing than howlingly funny; if you keep in mind its very troubled production history, however, it seems almost a miracle that it achieves any level of coherence. With weeks to go before shooting, director Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo, various influential music videos) bailed. He was replaced by Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park III, October Sky), who stuck with the project through various passes in the editing room. This "reboot" of the prized studio property wound up doing modest business as a piece of Valentine's Day weekend counterprogramming.

The Wolfman takes place in Victorian England, mostly in a cobwebby manse and its surrounding (perpetually overcast) environs. Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) plays a celebrated actor living in New York who reluctantly returns home following the death of his brother, Ben. There he exchanges loaded remarks with his father, Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins), who once upon a time shipped Lawrence off to an asylum, shortly after the boy witnessed the gruesome death of his mother. Ben's fiancée, Gwen (Emily Blunt), is at Talbot Hall to soften some of the hard feelings.

The developing tenderness between Lawrence and Gwen then gets a whole lot more complicated. In the midst of his inquiry into the cause of his brother's death, Lawrence gets bitten by a werewolf, thus becoming one. Cue the moonbeams, which angle down ominously through windows and fog-heavy forest canopies. In a knowing nod to stereotypes of yesteryear (but also a disappointing perpetuation of them), gypsies and a Sikh manservant are called to testify that curses are real. There's a stovepipe-tip to the steampunks, as well: An extended chase scene through London showcases the city's smokestacks and steam-powered streetcars.

Though it's deliberately hokey and thick with atmosphere, The Wolfman isn't much fun in any traditional sense; it's not good enough to repay any emotional investment in its characters, and it's not bad enough to induce consistent derisive laughter (though the awkward mix of unconvincing CGI and man-in-suit makeup, by the legendary Rick Baker, does so fitfully). What really put it over the top for me was the sublimely weird work of Hopkins and Del Toro. For all I know, these two are consummate professionals, but it really does seem like they met around the catering table one day and quietly agreed to condescend to the material by delivering spectacularly disengaged performances. Even before the man-to-wolf transformations commence, these two appear dead-eyed—Del Toro building off that with a faux aw-shucks American accent (he sounds a bit like David Lynch during one dinner-table scene), Hopkins with rambling line readings that make his ludicrous speeches sound improvised.

I can't think of another instance in which the two leads seem so bizarrely, hilariously disconnected from the rest of a film (here, Blunt and Hugo Weaving, as a Scotland Yard detective, are much more earnestly trying to make an impression). Or another movie in which the scenes of obligatory exposition—most of the lycanthropic backstory comes when Hopkins and Del Toro are alone, talking—entertain so much more than the moments when the music swells and the blood flows. I hope these two thesps are not done working together. If they can make this salvage job watchable, what else are they capable of?

Presented by

Benjamin Mercer has written on film for The Village Voice, The New York Sun, The L Magazine, and Reverse Shot. He is a copy editor at Bookforum. More

He has also copyedited for two New York dailies: The New York Sun and amNewYork.

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