From the Archives: Misery

Since writing this, nearly twenty-four years ago (good gravy, I think I need to sit down), I’ve decided that Stand By Me is probably more like Rob Reiner’s third best movie. There are a couple of his films that are clearly better, but they don’t have the same tinge of somber importance to them, so I downgraded them at the time. However, I stick with Stand By Me as the best film adaptation of a King work, by a wide margin. Sorry, Shawshank disciples. It’s interesting to think back on this film as the effective introduction of Kathy Bates and what a thrill it was to see her take command of the character. I haven’t watched more than a minute or two of this film in years, and I have some suspicions that the performance may not have aged all that well (especially since Bates has now deployed some of the tricks she used here a few too many times). Still, I remember the joy of discovery in watching it the first time around. And though Anjelica Huston probably deserved the trophy, I was just as delighted to see Bates become an Oscar-winner for this role, which was hardly the stuff of traditional Academy taste.

If someone were to ask me to name the best Stephen King movie and the best Rob Reiner movie, I could answer by naming only one film: Reiner’s STAND BY ME, based on the Stephen King novella “The Body.” So high expectations must naturally accompany Reiner’s latest project, an adaptation of one of King’s most solidly effective books from the past ten years, MISERY.

MISERY is about a novelist named Paul Sheldon who has spent most of his writing career churning out the adventures of Misery Chastain, a heroine of historical romance novels. Sheldon gets into a nasty auto accident in the middle of an enormous blizzard. Lucky for him, he’s saved by a woman who claims to be his “number one fan.” Unfortunately for him, that number one fan is a reclusive madwoman named Annie Wilkes. When Annie discovers that Sheldon’s latest Misery novel kills the heroine off, she purchases a typewriter and forces him to write a new book which brings Misery back from the dead. The film builds its suspense from the Fact that Wilkes is so unpredictable, her wild mind could swing into a fir of rage at the smallest, seemingly most insignificant incident. She tells Paul she loves him and you can tell she truly does, but in her own warped way. A way that leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind that when Sheldon is finished with the book that he’s writing on demand Annie will end both their lives.

Paul Sheldon is well-played by James Caan, who is quite probably hoping for a comeback due to this film. Unfortunately, the script is never able to find an avenue to get inside of the character. We are presented with Sheldon’s distant outer persona and can never get a strong grasp on what kind of person he really is. The film does sport two exceptional performances, one coming from Richard Farnsworth, as a sheriff who takes on the search for Paul Sheldon after he’s reported missing. The other comes from Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes. Bates takes the most challenging role in the film makes it effortless. With Annie Wilkes, she’s forced to play an incredible range of broad, strong emotions, and she plays each one convincingly. Whether she has to play goofy earnestness, vicious anger, or switch from glowing pride to bitter disgust in a split-second, Bates is up to the task.

MISERY has flaws, such as an overly intrusive score and some needlessly stilted dialogue, but the performances and the sharp, crisp direction of Rob Reiner easily make up for them.

(3 stars, out of 4)

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