21st Century Rewatch: Wolf (1994) and the Death of the Midlife Crisis Movie
Let’s get this straight first: I LOVE the 1994 movie Wolf. I watch it every October. However, I don’t love it for the reasons the filmmakers intended. I love it for the absolutely crystalized absurdity of the male mid life crisis metaphor.
The mid life crisis movie was hugely popular in the late 80s and 90s; remember Field of Dreams where the metaphysical world contorts itself so that one Iowan farmer solves his father issues? Blockbuster. The (usually) straight middle-aged white male protagonist has achieved everything he wants in life: wife, children, good job, property ownership, wardrobe of blazers, etc.; but something is missing. He’s thrown a curveball (ha! A baseball pun!) and he do longer feels satisfied in his life because, gosh darn it, he lacks… something. Now to ignore his responsibilities and go on a quest for fulfillment. Wolf is this narrative pumped up to a truly ridiculous degree that results in Jack Nicholson growing extra hair and leaping up staircases in an aerial harness.
Mild mannered editor-in-chief of a prestigious publishing house Will Randall (Jack Nicholson) is bitten by a wolf in the first scene of the film. But, oh no! He’s got bigger problems that the course of rabies treatments he really ought to be undergoing. He’s being forced out of his job by the machinations of his boss (Christopher Plummer) and protege (James Spader). We, as the audience, are informed multiple times Tommy Wisseau-style that Will is a great guy. He has “taste and individuality,” a “nice person,” and “the last civilized man” by various characters which is helpful since apparently all of his niceness happens before the movie takes place. Our Will is Jack Nicholson in all of his swaggering disdain. What’s particularly interesting is that even though men cause this huge rift in his life, there’s a theme of misogyny and cover ups that happen throughout the film. Sure, Wolf seems to say, other people have problems, but this one guy is about to have his ego crushed!! Spare a thought for a guy wealthy enough to move into a hotel overlooking Central Park who may be forced to use his vast connections and sterling reputation to get another job!
Well, maybe not “sterling,” Will admit that his reputation suffered because he said that “no semi-literate 14 year old” would read real life author Judith Krantz. Judith Krantz is a best selling author whose novels were described as “sex and shopping” by the NYTimes. Her books are primarily read by women and Will, as a man of “taste and individuality” doesn’t like them. However, before we get a chance to ruminate on a publishing boss being unable to recognize the merits of a living woman writer, a fictional woman writer flutters into Will’s office and expresses undying personal loyalty to him. See? So it’s okay that he dismisses a real woman author and her readership because we’ve invented another woman who he does like! This bizarre combination of a bite followed by a soothing lick repeats throughout the film. Clearly, Will really does feel like that about Judith Krantz, but we’re cautioned as the audience to not hold it against him because he’s a man of “taste and individuality.”
The most startling edition of this happens at the party shortly before Will is informed he’s being replaced. Two women are discussing the ramifications of the destruction of the rainforests and how that could cause the world to end. Will leaps in with this speech which is so eye-popping I’m going to put it in block quotes:
“You could make the case that the world has already ended. That art is dead….that instead of art, we have pop culture, daytime TV, gay senior citizens, women who have been raped by their dentists confiding in Oprah, an exploration in depth of why women cut off their husbands’ penis…”
At this point, I usually rewind and watch that speech again, delivered with utter sincerity by 50-something steel-eyed Jack. The entire movie stops as he delivers it like a soundbite or call to arms. I love it so much. It’s like the platonic ideal of a non sequitur argument made by a reddit troll. It has nothing to do with the conversation! It’s homophobic! It’s so packed full of misogyny! It’s so spectacularly unfair to everyone involved. Grab your bone saw! It’s time to dissect! To begin, the women are talking about literal threats to humanity: climate change and pandemics (topical, eh?), but Will argues (?) that there’s no point in even talking about substantial threats to the planet because he doesn’t like current pop culture. Gay senior citizens bother him by existing, I guess. I can’t entirely figure out if his issue is that he thinks gay people should stay closetted or not live to old age; but this is so spectacularly tonedeaf considering the AIDS crisis was still had yet to peak. But their problems are not Will’s problems, so he finds it distasteful to even hear about. Women get the brunt of this speech, though. Daytime TV was marketed heavily to women with soap operas, talk shows, and game shows. Will hates it! It’s as if there might be a significant crossover with the audience of Judith Krantz… interesting. Oprah is in there twice, technically, as her show was daytime tv. The bit about “women being raped by their dentists” is especially peculiar since it’s just left there dangling. Like, does he not think that’s a news story? Does he think that doesn’t belong specifically on Oprah? Does he not think women should complain about being raped by healthcare providers? But, wait! Are we getting a bit of explanation of this rant by the last line? Is his issue that he doesn’t want to hear about women’s rage and oppression brought about by men? Tragically, we don’t get a cross examination because the party goers, including “evil” James Spader, stare at him uncomfortably. But don’t worry about that! Just a few minutes later, patrician ideal Christopher Plummer will, with manful elegance, tell misogynist homophobic Will that he’s a “nice person” and has “taste and individuality.”
But wait! Will’s wolf transformation truly has yet to begin! Will meets Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer) who is his boss’s daughter and a solid 20 years younger. We get two hilariously inept character moments. First she calls him “the last civilized man” after he apologizes for finishing her drink after he feels dizzy. Wow, Michelle, low bar. Then he awkwardly grabs her breasts while stumbling and when she objects, he says he’s “Perfectly safe. I’m married.” She and I are skeptical, since marriage is not typically a gelding process, but this here is FORESHADOWING. He’s not going to be safe (or married) for long.
Will appears to have a pretty solid marriage until it’s revealed that evil job-stealing James Spader is having an affair with his wife! Will has no interest in working it out and takes these ego crushing situations and wolf saliva and turns aggressive. No more Mr. Nice Guy That We’ve Never Seen But Have Been Reliably Told He Is.
Will runs into Laura again (now with 50% less marriage!), we have another bite and lick, because it’s time for some prehistoric negging! Will tells Laura:
You know, I think I understand what you’re like now. You’re very beautiful and you think men are only interested in you because you’re beautiful, but you want them to be interested in you because you’re you. The problem is, aside from all that beauty, you’re not very interesting. You’re rude, you’re hostile, you’re sullen, you’re withdrawn. I know you want someone to look past all that at the real person underneath but the only reason anyone would bother to look past all that is because you’re beautiful. Ironic, isn’t it? In an odd way you’re your own problem.
“Negging” is pick up artist term to mean a method of insulting attractive women as a way of using reverse psychology. Laura appears not to fall for it by saying “Sorry. Wrong line. I am not taken aback by your keen insight and suddenly challenged by you” but she totally does. From this point on, she shares intimate details of her life, cares for him, and agrees to meet him later. Their relationship is really an example of male fantasy at work. The whole movie is an outright male midlife crisis fantasy checklist. Let’s have a look in chronological order:
Male Midlife Crisis Fantasy Checklist
- Regrow lost hair
- Increase libido
- Outrun police
- Taunt and then beat up muggers
- Urinate on office rival’s shoes
- Make cheating wife beg to come back
- Sleep with Michelle Pfeiffer
The movie’s treatment of Will’s wife is especially bad. She cheats on him and then, after Will’s first night with Laura, is revealed to have had her throat ripped out, presumably by James Spader. Will doesn’t spare a thought to the woman he’s lived with for years. The implication is that she got what was coming to her and his only concern is that the police suspect he was the killer. In fact, he tells Laura, whom he’s known for less than a month, “I’ve never loved anybody this way. Never looked at a woman and thought, if civilization fails, if the world ends, I’ll still understand what God meant.” All this for the woman he declared earlier was “not very interesting” aside from her looks. In case you need a highly symbolic version of this particular man-woman dynamic, after Will’s first heart to heart with Laura, he feels compelled to go into the woods, finds a doe and rips her throat out. He wakes up in the forest smeared with blood in a way that, if he were a woman in film, would clearly be coded as a sexual awakening.
There’s a few moments in the film that jar with the exceptionally Will-centric viewpoints. These are moments when people who are dealing with issues bigger than ego expressed themselves, but are forgotten about a moment later. For instance, before Will finds out his wife is cheating, they’re eating together and she begins to tell Will about sexism she faces as a journalist. She explains that her boss told her to cover a women’s health story rather than a political one she wanted to do purely because she’s a woman. However, Will chooses this moment to exercise his new Super Wolf Sex Drive and interrupts her. This conversation could have easily been about something banal like breakfast foods, but it’s deliberately about workplace sexism. The implication is that Will doesn’t care and we shouldn’t care about her situation. This is Will’s story and Will doesn’t have to deal with anything he’s not interested in. We also see Om Puri’s Dr. Vijay Alezais who comes from an unspecified “people” and is an academic knowledgeable in animal possession. Dr. Alezais gives Will a protective amulet and reveals he’s dying. He asks Will to bite him and Will flatly refuses for unexplained reasons. Dr. Alezais may hope to continue the customs and knowledge of his people, spread wisdom, or give help to others through a wolf-enhanced life but Will doesn’t care and the movie never returns to him. The last one is the most awful. In Central Park, Will runs into a group of fresh-faced POC teenagers, who, this being a 1994 upper class white protagonist movie, pull a gun on Will and demand his wallet. Will, instead of walking away or complying, taunts and then attacks them, biting at least one. We later see the teen’s mother sobbing in the police station saying that if her son were white, they’d try to find who ripped off her son’s fingers. Yeah, I bet they would too. So here we’ve got serious issues with society: workplace sexism, vanishing and undocumented indeginous knowledge and customs, and racial discrimination in policing. We can add in the fact that at least one of those young men is probably now a werewolf and doesn’t know it. But this is about Will and those are not his problems. His problems are related to his ego rather than his safety or wellbeing.
So what is it that I like so much about Wolf? The look of the movie is great and it’s directed with such seriousness that it’s hard to notice the absurdity of the main point of view on first viewing. The score by Ennio Morricone is phenomenal. There’s so much spooky atmosphere and ominous cues. But the real treasure is James Spader. He’s the only one acting as though he’s in a werewolf picture, morphing from slimy backstabber to flamboyant monster; tilting his head and widening his wolf eyes to steal every scene. He’s delightful. The text of the Wolf is so serious, almost solemn in its metaphoric mid life crisis, that it feels like satire all these years later. Midlife crisis movies are nearly extinct these days as they feel less and less relatable as young people struggle to find well paying jobs, own property, or afford children. Younger people generally haven’t been able to be so self focused; concerned instead on issues like racial discrimination, sexism, homophobia, climate change, and poverty. You can’t rebel against the security and comfort of your life if you lack security and comfort to begin with. Fictional guys like Will? Frankly, it’s easier to sympathize with the werewolf than the wealthy and prestigious editor. It’s hard not to laugh.
Oh, and just for fun, the date when Will is bitten? It’s March 8, International Women’s Day! I kind of hope that’s deliberate.