February 17, 2010

The Wolfman (02/17/10)

Lettergrade: D-

In spite of a couple kick-ass action sequences, most of The Wolfman feels pretty goddamn flat. I didn't expect that, I must say, as the picture stars feted thespians Benicio Del Toro, Emily Blunt, and Anthony Hopkins - Oscar winners all - and has a lot of impressive behind-the-scenes talent on its side too, including Se7en screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, legendary make-up artist Rick Baker, and production designer Rick Heinrichs (Sleepy Hollow, Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3).

The movie they've all made together commits that greatest of all cinematic sins... the one that's far worse than if it had only been laughably bad: Simply put, it just doesn't leave much of an impression on any level whatsoever. It's bland... it's unmemorable... it's like a SyFy Channel movie where they had a lot of extra money for nice sets and costumes. This is one of those films that skated by with so little emotional weight and such a brief running time (just over 80 minutes!) that in a few months I think I'll have trouble even remembering that I saw it. Say what you will about Showgirls, Batman & Robin or that Wicker Man remake staring Nicolas Cage, but if nothing else I will never forget them.

Before I dive into specifics, though, I'd like to rehash some of the movie's epicly troubled (and public) production history. Del Toro signed on to appear in a remake of the 1941 classic way back in 2006, and at the time One Hour Photo's Mark Romanek was attached to direct it. Just a few weeks before shooting began in late 2007, Romanek decided to jump ship, reportedly because Universal wanted to cut the schedule and remove what he felt were critical sections of the script. After a fast and furious replacement search, the suits hired director Joe Johnston; once a brilliant sequence designer at Industrial Light and Magic, and for the last 20 years, the guy behind big budget, slightly-bland-but-family-friendly spectacle such as The Rocketeer, Jumanji, and Jurassic Park III.

With minimal time to prepare, Johnston agreed to shoot the reduced script Universal wanted using the shortened schedule Universal wanted... and was promptly met with a rocky film shoot and nearly two years of post production hell. This time period included disastrous test screenings, reshoots (which ironically reinstated the very material that Romanek objected to omitting in the first place), FOUR release date delays, the last-minute emergency hiring of two top notch film editors (Walter Murch and the uncredited Mark Goldblatt) to doctor the cut, and an entire musical score by Danny Elfman that was recorded, then replaced with some electronic techno crap by one of the guys from Tangerine Dream(!), and then put back again at the very last minute only a few weeks before the film hit theaters.

I guess the filmmakers deserve a round of applause for reaching the finish line at all on this one, but it would have been nice if they had something more interesting to show for all that trouble.

The extremely gory wolfed-out action scenes are easily the highlights of the flick. The second sequence, where the Wolfman is loose in London, is part of what was added after the first assembly and is the best of the bunch, probably because it's the only one that Johnston had adequate time to prepare for. I would have liked to have seen an additional scene where the Wolfman does a headstand on the roof of his buddy Stiles' van while it speeds through town, but I guess you can't ask for everything.

Some of the action choreography looked like it was done by the same people who do WWE matches these days. Lots of chair throwing and body slams. Although I really appreciated that the Wolfman make-up paid homage to the make-up in the Lon Cheney original, more than once I thought that it looked a lot like Luis Guzman in brownface.

The film's biggest problems, though, are in the first third, which is where most of the major surgery was performed by the emergency editors. They blow through everything so goddamn fast that key things like motivation and cause and effect are virtually non-existent. Allow me to back that up for a bit:

Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro) is called back to his family estate in England after his brother is killed during the film's prologue. He's reunited with his no-doubt-about-it, unquestionably evil father played by Anthony Hopkins (think of the cheesiest performance you've seen him give, then imagine it being a lot worse) and his brother's fiancé played by Emily Blunt, who owes Murch and Goldblatt a fruit basket for making her screen presence as minimal as possible.

Anyway, after around 15 minutes of lightning fast nonsense, Lawrence goes to a nearby gypsy camp while we, the audience, are still completely free of any idea that he has gone there in order to track down his brother's killer or that he's even all that broken up by his death at all. Later, after Lawrence has recovered from a mysterious animal bite, he sits in his room with a disturbed look on his face, then abruptly tells Emily Blunt that she must leave the estate and go back to London immediately. Um... why? Is he aware that he will become a monster when the full moon shines? Does he fear that someone else will? What set off his alarm bells in the first place?

The ultimate approach seemed to be to reduce scenes to their absolute shortest length, and somehow hope they would make sense when placed next to eachother. They don't. And I've seen Murch, one of film's most respected intellectuals who has written several books on the craft of film editing, try this before: Specifically with the opening of The Godfather Part III, another troubled production, where he reshuffled and reduced the opening scenes to the point where you just don't have any idea what the movie is about or where it's supposed to be going until, like, an hour into it.

Lately I've had some experience with producers being adamant that we remove or rework certain parts of scenes in order transform a moment into something it wasn't originally meant to be. Sometimes you can get away with it and it's completely the right thing to do, but just as often the scenes can quickly feel disfigured and without purpose in the larger movie. You no longer understand what sections of the movie are supposed to mean or why the characters are doing what they're doing. With Wolfman, I have a feeling they might have been better off if they had left in some of the clunky dialogue, assuming, of course, that it helped to communicate the story better early on. One of the perils of making arm-chair comments like this is that you often really do need to see what was cut in order to understand why it was cut. The omitted material might have turned the first half hour into one of the most ridiculous, terrible sequences of film ever produced. But at least it might have made sense. Or been interesting. The movie that made it to theaters isn't either of those things.