Mike Nichols's Wolf is decidedly not routine or typical summer fare. Though this romantic thriller about a werewolf, framed as a contemporary tale of the supernatural, may appeal to youngsters, it's definitely not made with an eye on the youth market. More ambitious in intent and execution than most mainstream movies released this year, Wolf provokes some genuine feelings and thoughts, no minor feat in present-day Hollywood.

The hero, played by Jack Nicholson in a bravura performance, is Will Randall, a senior editor at a New York publishing house, haunted by fears of losing his job. One winter night, while driving along a remote country road, he accidentally hits a wolf. Concerned that he's killed it, he stops his car and follows the blood trail. The beast appears to be dead, but suddenly it bites him on the wrist and escapes into the woods.

From this fateful, mythical encounter, Will's life begins to change. The transformation is subtle at first, with his senses becoming more acute and his perceptions of those around him sharper. With each passing day, Will is drawn deeper into the mystical spirit of the wolf. Nothing–not his job, marriage, or any part of his life–will ever be the same again.

Novelist Jim Harrison (Sundog, Legends of the Fall) has developed the idea for his friend Jack Nicholson. Wolf was planted 15 years ago, when his youngest daughter, Anna, challenged him to write something that would really frighten her. One night, sleeping in his cabin in Michigan's peninsula, Harrison himself suffered what he calls a modest attack of lycanthropy (the delusion that one has become a wolf).

The Kafkaesque aspect of Wolf appeals to director Nichols, who sees it like Metamorphosis, a poetic expression of an inner state. It's a metaphor for the experience of becoming different from everyone else and leaving humanity behind, which is a kind of nightmare that happens to people in the middle of their lives. Wolf is thus concerned with male menopause–professional and sexual anxieties that men experience in their mid-life crisis.

Inevitably, a film like Wolf assumes more particular meanings from the broader social context in which it is made, a time in which there are terrible diseases, and terrible things happen to people through circumstances no one can control. Some viewers may see Wolf as metaphor of AIDS.

The moviemakers have tried to eliminate value judgments as to whether Will is better off as a wolf–there are good wolves and bad wolves. In fact, Will resists becoming a wolf, and it's only the events of the story that make him unable to.

Wolf marks a reunion of Mike Nichols and Jack Nicholson, who have worked on three films before: Carnal Knowledge (l971), The Fortune (l975), and Heartburn (l986). It's impossible to imagine the movie without Nicholson, who has always been effective at showing

the uncensored, uncontrolled, and darker side of his screen persona.

Most of Hollywood's werewolf movies were made in the l940s, when their sexual contents had to be cautious, though the myth of the werewolf was always a sexual one, with the wolf killing those he loves. In this more explicit version, the love interest is played by Michele Pfeiffer, who engages in a bizarre, full of twists, relationship with Will.

The New York City depicted in Wolf is literally and physically falling apart–the streets, the buildings, the pluming, the sewer system, the whole infrastructure. Production designer Bo Welch, who was in charge of the memorable fantasy worlds of Tim Burton's Beetlejuice, Batman Returns, and Edward Scissorhands, created for Wolf the menace and nightmare that surrounds Will.

But the film is not entirely pessimistic, suggesting that times in which things are disintegrating may also be times in which things are changing. Hence, issues of awakening, empowerment, and coming to close terms with the unconscious are central to the text.

Made by middle-aged writer, director, and movie star, I'm curious to see how Wolf will perform at the box-office, in an industry dominated by young viewers. Tale's villain is a ruthlessly ambitious and immoral yuppie, played by James Spader in a type of role he has made his own for years.

The ideological subtext of Wolf may well signal the ultimate condemnation of yuppism as a life style and the conglomeration of our most creative institutions, including the publishing world, where the movie is set.