Misery (Rob Reiner, 1990)

by Douglas Buck August 9, 2020 6 minutes (1340 words) HD Streaming

Novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan), having just finished writing the latest — and planned final — entry in his best-selling series of breathy romance novels following the loves and betrayals of one Misery Chastain, in which the author has finally sent his Victorian-era creation – with her being both the source of his wild financial success as well as his greatest albatross at being considered a ‘serious author’ — to her grave, ends up sliding his car off the icy road in Colorado where he was spending his time away writing the book, awakening to find himself disabled and in the secluded clutches of the crazy Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), self-proclaimed ‘number one fan’, who will have none of this Misery being killed off nonsense, demanding he burn the offending manuscript and write a whole new novel in which the beloved romantic character continues…

Now this was one I was really intrigued about revisiting as part of my (and my daughter’s) on-going Stephen King cinematic retro, with it having made such a splash upon its initial release and still held in nostalgic high-regard as one of the better King adaptations, just to see if it holds up… and… well…

It doesn’t. Not really.

I mean, it’s not a bad film. It’s just one that keeps missing opportunities, at seemingly every turn, at being truly fascinating, or genuinely daring, or dark, or psychologically complex, all which would have given it the level of intensity the film clearly needed a transfusion of to both allow the attempts at dark humor to really have bite, and to give it the actual modern classic label so many seem to want to attach to it (alas, it’s very surface nature is likely what made it so popular at the time… and unfortunately helped turn the work of cloying hack director Rob Reiner into a multiplex presence).

For instance… yes, yes, Bates is just fine as the crazed Wilkes, with the danger of her mania revealing itself a bit at a time to the helpless Sheldon, with the author doing his best to placate her until he can figure out a way to get the fuck out of there… but it’s the character itself, as written, that’s a bit dull. While I haven’t read the book in over twenty years, I remember clearly King’s describing of the sudden glimpses of emptiness that Sheldon would see in her eyes, as if there was nothing there, nothing behind it… and how this was supposed to be terrifying… and it’s clear Reiner directs her exactly to reveal this… but all it really does, instead of making her more nefarious, more threatening, is dehumanize, and de-mystify, her into a kind of latest imaginary monster, like a zombie (only at least the zombie has all that cool rotting skin).

So much of Wilkes — from those empty looks supposed to create terror, to the far-too-precious (that ol’ King special) use of in-this-case silly scatological words (like ‘oh, poo!’) that he has her say (because she refuses to ever curse) that are supposed to be somehow fascinating, and really clever on his part, but only register as kinda amusing at best, entirely false at worst — reveals the author (and the film) to have created not a flesh-and-blood character, but instead a cardboard manifestation of the author’s fears (I mean, I’m sure King has come across a few doozies in his book signing days where he thought… “Hm. I don’t know if that guy or gal should be reading my books.”… I’ve had a few of those experiences myself at conventions with my film Family Portraits… and I’d be delusionally way-overestimating if I even referenced my miniscule fan base as a microscopic speck of dirt on a patch on the tiniest wrinkle on King’s ass).

As I watched Caan’s Sheldon begrudgingly write the new book, forced to accept Wilke’s overbearing creative ‘suggestions’ (with the book writing itself being nothing more than a prop within the story), I begin to wonder… what if an adult European filmmaker – better yet, a French one! — had gotten his hands on this material (and managed to push King’s Wilkes-ian-like input out of it, like Kubrick did with The Shining)? How much more interesting of a relationship would have developed between captive and captor? What if Sheldon found himself, through Wilke’s input, discovering a new depth, a deeper insight – and a greater chance at ‘serious writing’ – right inside the world of the Misery Chastain series? And as the depths of the writing process grew deeper, so did a perverse relationship grow between the two?

I mean, the movie does nothing with the writing process around the new Misery book. I mean, the story is practically BEGGING for some brilliant twist with it… but King didn’t see it. Neither did Reiner, or Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman. Instead they gave us a simplified easy-to-digest, kinda fun, sorta suspenseful cat-and-mouse tale (with the ‘reveal’ of Wilkes having been fired as a nurse for murder in the past as, again, nothing remotely interesting to build on – it’s not like we don’t already know she’s a fucking nutter – and, worse, they show this SAME information TWICE – first, Sheldon reads about it in some newspaper clippings that Wilkes has put together in a scrapbook – one of those convenient genre narrative conventions that never has an ounce of believability even as it manages to work on occasion – then, again, when the town sheriff reads the same clippings at the local library).

Speaking of that sheriff, the most engaging and authentic feeling relationship in the film is the gently antagonistic, yet loving, one between the two main supporting characters; the aged husband and wife local police team, played by long time cinematic vets Richard Farnsworth and Frances Sternhagen, a coupla performers who seem to be enjoying playing off each other (not surprising that this relationship works in the film, as King certainly does always love him some of those down-home country folk). Caan, meanwhile, doing his best, works to bring a hint of underlying black humor to his performance that occasionally plays just a tad too much like he’s winking at the audience.

There’s a few amusing, if vaguely tangential (but, hey, this is my review so bug off if you don’t like it), similarities between the respective Misery and The Shining book-to-film adaptations, including the cinematic Wilkes wielding a v-eeee-ry LARGE mallet in place of the book’s axe with which to punish the feet of the begging Sheldon after he’s been discovered having crawled out of bed to snoop about the place (in that cringe-worthy scene everyone was talking about at the time… that also doesn’t hold up as impactfully today)… while, ironically, Kubrick’s Jack Torrance does the reverse (moving from literary mallet to cinematic axe), leading to its use during the arrival of the ill-fated cook Halloran, a scene that has continued to age – like that entire film – as immeasurably and immensely over time as the finest of blood-based wines (no matter what King may say about it). Then there’s the referencing of both authors typing something over and over on a page (no surprise, with the use of the motif in Misery a throwaway moment, while in The Shining it remains one of the greatest, most dread-inducing reveals in modern horror cinema).

While I guess you could say Misery is a classier entry in the King adaptation sweepstakes so far (though what self-respecting horror fan is looking for that in their genre movie?), it could have been so much more. Wow, is it overestimated. My guess is a lot of its initial fans haven’t actually seen it since they were young tykes, like myself, swept along by the assembly-line popular horror output of Mr King… and would be in for a surprise if they do get around to giving it a revisit.

Misery (Rob Reiner, 1990)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

Buck A Review   horror   kathy bates   rob reiner   stephen king. james caan