Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Wolfman

When this long-delayed film finally stumbled into theaters early this year, I had found it to be a really great-looking mess of a film, as would befit a movie that had gone through such a large number of writers and directors. The unrated DVD has a surprising extra sixteen minutes of the film, mostly in the form of additional plot, so I felt an urge to see the film with the extra material and see if it was any better.

In case you were wondering, no, it wasn’t. Almost all of the additions came at the beginning of the film, where a quick, inscrutable montage was expanded to where each of the quick clips was expanded into a full scene (the most notable of which was a scene of Benicio Del Toro sleepwalking his way through a stage portrayal of Hamlet). This has a troubling dual effect: it makes the confused, rushed early scenes of the film more comprehensible, at the price of slowing the movie down so much that it seems to outright crawl at the start. It’s a bit of a wash either way, though I suppose I’d give the slight edge to the theatrical version, just for getting the film over with sooner.

Anyway, for those of you that require a plot description, here goes: Del Toro plays Lawrence Talbot, a famous stage actor who is summoned back to his ancestral home after his brother disappears. He arrives only to find that his brother’s body has been found, torn apart as if some wild animal had savaged him. He soon discovers that the locals live in fear of the werewolf, which they feel is responsible for the recent attacks on people, and they feel his family is also at the root of the curse. He is, of course, promptly bitten in an attack, and his father (Anthony Hopkins) first frees him to attack some more locals trying to hunt the beast down, then helps the law arrest him, for what appears to be no reason other than so we can get scenes of him in a mental hospital, before breaking out and tearing people apart in London, which is admittedly a good reason indeed. This it’s off to the final showdown between father and son (I hope I’m not really spoiling anything by saying the father was the original werewolf, because it’s pretty obvious while watching long before that point).

The problems with the film are numerous. The story, as a result of having been written and re-written so many times, is a complete mess, with incredibly clunky dialogue, frequently nonexistent characterization, and a plot that tends to leap from action sequence to action sequence without any serious attempt at added coherency (the exception being the expanded beginning, which in contrast to the rest of the film just moves appallingly slowly). The acting is appalling: Del Toro, Hopkins, Hugo Weaving, and Emily Blunt are all talented actors, and they all give some of the worst performances of their careers here, alternating between hamming it up and standing there visibly weary at the thought of the mess they signed on for. Del Toro in particular spends the entire film just looking sad and broken, as though he can’t quite figure out how his childhood dream of playing the wolfman could have turned out so wrong. The bulk of these problems can be attributed to director Joe Johnston, who was hired specifically because of his reputation for finishing films quickly and cheaply, without worrying overly much about actual quality. Universal, after watching the film languish in development hell for three years, evidently felt that what was most important was getting any movie into theaters, not necessarily a good one.

Of course, there are a few good parts of the film, the main one being the frankly magnificent set design. The film looks incredible, like the old Universal gothic settings cranked up to 11 (the film looks incredible, that is, with the exception of the CG of the werewolves and fire, which looks like the effects department whipped up a quick first draft and Johnston just figured “Good enough, we need this in theaters next week“). The Talbot mansion is just massive and run down, lit only by candles strategically placed every twenty or so yards to ensure that every scene inside it is bathed in shadow. There is also the section when he is captured and sent to London, which is the single best portion of the film, as he transforms and rips apart a group of psychiatrists and colleagues who are convinced the problem is all in his head, before busting out and ripping through people in a steam-powered trolley. It’s one of the all-too-few entertaining action scenes in the film, but it’s a good one.

Unfortunately, that’s really not enough to give the film anything approaching a recommendation. It’s just sloppily made, visibly rushed, and leaves us with a film where everyone involved just looks like they’d rather be anywhere else. As a bad movie, there’s enough goofy material in it to make a viewing somewhat entertaining, but don’t be expecting anything more than that. According to IMDB, the film wound up costing an estimated 150 million dollars and made back about 62. Sometimes it pays to wait for quality.

Rating: * ½

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