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Good performances are squandered on Wolves, a flimsy takeoff of The Gambler

C
Photo: IFC Films
Photo: IFC Films
C

Wolves

Director: Bart Freundlich
Runtime: 109 minutes
Rating: R
Cast: Taylor John Smith, Michael Shannon, Carla Gugino, Zazie Beetz
Availability: Select theaters & VOD March 3

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Here’s Wolves in a nutshell: It’s The Gambler (either the James Toback-scripted original with James Caan or the remake with Mark Wahlberg) rewritten as a rote indie drama about high school sports, minus whatever gutsiness or humanity it takes to ask the audience to sympathize with an addict. The title refers to the team nickname of a Manhattan prep school, whose star basketball player, Anthony Keller (Taylor John Smith), has to suffer for the misdeeds of his dad, Lee (Michael Shannon), an English professor and failed novelist with a serious betting problem that has left him deep in debt to a variety of bullnecked or hatchet-faced crooks. Shannon plays Lee with a pinched voice and a poof of uncombed hair, and it’s a joy to watch this great actor force the breath of life into a character so bogus that half of his purpose in the script is to write the plot structure out on a blackboard. Toback had his version teach Dostoevsky, which was already pretty rich, but writer-director Bart Freundlich (Trust The Man, The Myth Of Fingerprints) straight up introduces him fiddling with a projector slide that reads, “Protagonist, conflict, antagonist.” At least he isn’t giving a lecture on titles as metaphors.

Most of the cast does a fine job of turning this hooey into something serviceable, even when saddled with roles as embarrassingly written as Socrates (stage actor John Douglas Thompson), the philosophizing street-ball guru who nods approvingly from the stands and says, “You’re the man,” during the big game finale. In fact, about half of the crowd at this inane climax seems to bolt up at one point or another to nod in approval. Freundlich burdens poor Anthony, nicknamed “Saint” (his school is St. Anthony’s, after the patron saint of, yes, lost souls), with a multitude of subplots (sins of the father, teen pregnancy, Cornell scholarship, leg injury) and resolves them by gathering all of the relevant characters in the stands, in the style of the old TV show This Is Your Life. He doesn’t care about the sport itself, since every other shot of boys and men shooting hoops is in slow motion. There’s one good non-slow-mo shot of the St. Anthony’s team trooping back and forth in the school gym in a pre-practice warm-up and some frenzied moments of trash-talking on the court, but the rest look like they’re trying to sell electrolyte drinks or shoes to millennials.

Gambling doesn’t interest Freundlich either. Wolves presumes that it happens elliptically, as a thing that makes men disappear into the backs of barrooms and then rematerialize some scenes later with bandaged hands. As for the topic of abortion—another ingredient in its undercooked stew of a plot—the film continues that storied, wimpy tradition of portraying it as a process in which a woman sits sadly in a waiting room before a slow dissolve to a different scene. The rule still holds that if you don’t want to show something, don’t make a movie about it, with exceptions made for great creative talent. Freundlich’s forte (if it can ever be called that) lies in giving hackneyed films a veneer of sophistication, nabbing overqualified actors, and giving thankless roles to talented women—in this case Carla Gugino and Atlanta’s Zazie Beetz, who play, respectively, Anthony’s long-suffering mother and his girlfriend. And the worst part is, he gets performances that are skillful enough that there are stretches—namely, any scene between the doomed father and the son he half-resents—where the movie actually works.