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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Misery’ a la King and Reiner

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With their obsessional, hallucinatory supernaturalism, Stephen King’s novels are so “cinematic” that they’re practically movies already. That’s one reason why, with the glorious exception of “Carrie,” they often don’t translate well to film. King creates fantastical effects that work on the page but often seem cloddy on screen; they’re so fully imagined that the filmmakers have nothing left to contribute.

“Misery,” directed by Rob Reiner from a script by William Goldman, works better than most of the King adaptations because it’s essentially a two-character psychological scare picture. There are no demon-obsessed cars, no vegetable people.

Paul Sheldon (James Caan) writes Gothic romance best-sellers featuring a heroine named Misery Chastain and, in his newly published tome, he kills her off. The movie (at selected theaters) begins when he has just finished a new novel--a serious “personal” book that he hopes will deliver him from hack work.

Trapped in a car wreck during a snowstorm in the Colorado Rockies where he has isolated himself to write, Paul is rescued by the aggressively doting Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who has consumed all of Paul’s novels; along with his photo, they occupy a shrine-like position in the living room of her out-of-the-way cabin. Since Paul’s legs and body are wracked and broken, he is virtually immobile--her prisoner.

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At first, it’s a god-sent imprisonment. Annie isn’t merely the greatest fan any writer could ever want, she’s also a registered nurse with a closet full of painkillers. It’s only when Paul shows her his new manuscript, and she’s thrown into a fury at its profanities, that he realizes the fix he’s in. When she picks up the new Misery novel and registers the demise of her fantasy alter ego, she swings into murderous action.

What keeps the film from being a morbid, claustrophobic bummer is Annie’s rapid-fire waverings between peachy-keen normality and terror. At first, Annie just seems like a puffy, overeager fan; with her Misery bookshelf and her Liberace record collection and her penchant for watching “Love Connection,” her character is clearly intended as a satirical send-up of schlock taste. The satire has a heartless effectiveness, and you can see why it’s in the movie. It dehumanizes Annie, all the better to turn her into a monster. “Fatal Attraction II,” anyone?

You never know what’s going to set Annie off, and Bates gives her an almost preternatural inkling for the false and the deceptive. She shows us the disgust and the fear of rejection and the demandingness that is the other side of Annie’s googly-eyed adulation. Reiner often shoots Bates in looming, full-body shots, as if she were a bull bearing down on us, but he needn’t have bothered. Bates carries around her own pumped-up force-field.

Caan hasn’t acted much in recent years, but he is often marvelous. He was the ardent, rock-solid sergeant in Coppola’s underrated 1987 “Gardens of Stone,” and, here, where this most physical of actors has to be virtually immobile throughout, he scores again. Caan gives the film (rated R for graphic violence and strong language) whatever human core it has; our empathy for his predicament and his pluck keeps the film from turning into a less campy, new-style version of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”

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When Annie is singing Paul’s praises, we can see how his fear and his vanity are all mixed up; he knows she’s dangerously loony but there’s a part of him that wants to bask in her words. (It’s a great in-joke at the expense of writers.) Paul may be a hack but, in his real-life predicament, he’s an artist. He has an understanding of character psychology that serves him well in his entrapment. He even has a torn sympathy for Annie. After all, there’s an element of self-sacrifice in his attempt to annihilate his “greatest fan.”

As compelling as “Misery” often is, I can’t say that I really enjoyed it a whole lot. It’s too flat-footed and vise-like. Reiner doesn’t provide the kind of nasty, sophisticated finesse that might have lifted the film out of pulpdom and into more Hitchcockian terrain. Like Paul, Reiner may want to persuade the world that he’s not ready to be pigeon-holed.

And it’s true: “Misery” doesn’t have much in common with, say, “When Harry Met Sally . . .” or “The Princess Bride.” But typecasting isn’t necessarily such a bad thing for a director. Too much of “Misery” comes across like a resume: It’s Rob Reiner demonstrating that he can make a psychological thriller too. He shows off his talent with actors but not so much his squiggly, off-center side, and it’s his best side.

Reiner and Goldman are content to create a contraption in which virtually all the scenes are bulky and dead-on and all the horrors are telegraphed. They are drier and more deft than King was in his novel, but they are still functioning primarily as schlock entertainers. Perhaps, in their own way, they’re trying to rescue Paul by demonstrating that there is something redemptive in hack work.


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