Like a frightening situation from one of the man's own novels, no power on Earth can apparently stop the zombielike progression of Stephen King books to the screen. Page-turners usually make for engrossing films, but with King it's been largely downhill since Brian De Palma did the electric "Carrie" in 1976. "Dolores Claiborne" is the latest King novel to make the transition, and it makes you wonder who would have bothered if the author's first name had been Irving.
And considerable bother has certainly gone into "Dolores." If nothing else, the cast and crew trekked up to wintry Nova Scotia, which apparently looks more like King's beloved Maine than Maine itself, and the usual infinite pains were taken with things like furnishings, makeup and accents.
More than that, there are occasional bursts of notable work here. Director Taylor Hackford brings an appropriate level of pulpy energy to the telling, and star Kathy Bates, who won a best actress Oscar for her performance in "Misery," a previous King adaptation, gives a better performance than the film deserves as the grumpy and possibly homicidal title character.
In fact, most things here are better than this film deserves. While it is difficult to tell without reading the original novel how much screenwriter Tony Gilroy had to work with, even with an assist from William Goldman (who is given a "consultant" credit near the end of the closing titles) all that has been produced is a bewildering hodgepodge of diverse and disconnected elements.
Though mostly set on fictional Little Tall Island, "Dolores" begins with a brief foray into Manhattan to introduce one of its protagonists. Celebrated magazine journalist Selena St. George (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is playfully sparring with her slimy editor (Eric Bogosian) when an attention-getting fax comes in. It seems wealthy socialite Vera Donovan has died back home in Maine, and who is suspected of murder but Vera's longtime housekeeper and Selena's estranged mother, Dolores Claiborne (Bates).
High-strung Selena, who likes pills almost as much as she likes Scotch, has not been in contact with her mother for 15 years, but home she comes in a real snit, looking like the Night of the Living Dead version of Holly Golightly. She snarls at Maine State Police Detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer) and moves back into the old family dump with her sullen parent in tow.
Since not much happens on Little Tall Island, Dolores has ample time to contemplate the extended series of visions that conveniently recapitulate the family history. It's here that we meet husband Joe St. George (David Strathairn), Selena's father, an abusive hellhound who does everything but drool and foam at the mouth. Joe is no longer around, and persistent detective Mackey has thought for years that Dolores is the reason why, which makes him extra curious about exactly what happened to Vera (British actress Judy Parfitt), who was almost as horrific a companion as Joe.
As a peevish, non-maternal mom, Kathy Bates gives a performance you have to admire. Her Dolores is meant to be very much the down-home character, given to salty curses and bawdy phraseology, and Bates, who has the additional challenge of playing the woman over a span of more than 20 years, is convincingly eccentric, careworn but unbowed.
But with the usually reliable Leigh showing the effects of playing a tense journalist for the third time in a row (after "The Hudsucker Proxy" and "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle"), Bates and the film are hampered by the lack of sufficiently strong performances to work off of.
More of a problem is that "Dolores Claiborne" is never quite sure what kind of a film it means to be. The plot centers on suspicious deaths, but doesn't manage to be more than sporadically thrilling, and a bogus climactic courtroom scene only adds to the disarray.
* MPAA rating: R, for language and domestic abuse. Times guidelines: themes dealt with include wife beating, child molestation and substance abuse.
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'Dolores Claiborne' Kathy Bates: Dolores Claiborne Jennifer Jason Leigh: Selena St. George Judy Parfitt: Vera Donovan Christopher Plummer: Detective John Mackey David Strathairn: Joe St. George Eric Bogosian: Peter John C. Reilly: Constable Frank Stamshaw A Castle Rock Entertainment presentation, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Taylor Hackford. Producers Taylor Hackford, Charles Mulvehill. Screenplay Tony Gilroy, based on the book by Stephen King. Cinematographer Gabrie Beristain. Editor Mark Warner. Costumes Shay Cunliffe. Music Danny Elfman. Production design Bruno Rubeo. Art director Dan Yarhi. Set decorator Steve Shewchuk. Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes.
In general release throughout Southern California.