Misery (1990, Rob Reiner)
It’s so Stephen King to write a novel about a bestselling author whose #1 fan kidnaps him and forces him to write a book bringing her favorite character back to life. So is the notion of that author, at the climax, holding up this coveted book, this sudden access to power, and lighting it on fire; later, the smashing of a person’s head with a typewriter adds to the authorial fantasy element. In Rob Reiner’s film adaptation, Kathy Bates is incredible as that obsessive fan who stalks and rescues and nurtures and tortures her hero, a vaguely egotistical crank played by James Caan (also giving one of his best performances). She is genuinely horrifying, pathetic and real, and she manages to undercut the raw terror with wicked humor during her every scene. Reiner — making his first thriller — directs this film in the fashion of William Wyler, with the help of cinematographer (later popular director) Barry Sonnenfeld, livening up every inanimate object and tiny detail with unspeakable menace. Reiner, King and screenwriter William Goldman structure and tell their tale while walking in the footsteps of Alfred Hitchcock, with constant quotes from impotence slash broken leg narrative Rear Window right up to the violent conclusion. When they mount the tension, it can put a knot in your stomach, even if you’re someone who knows all the tricks. These virtues ought to redeem anything wrong here, but they can’t, not quite; the result is a film that’s a blast to watch but finally feels smug and facile.
The central problem here is that there is no real complexity to either of the two major characters. Bates’ Annie in particular, strong and savvy as her performance is, never feels like a human being; she’s a lunatic when she first appears and she only gets worse. King and the filmmakers just keep piling on stuff to make her more hated. There’s the pointless suggestion that she intends to indulge in plagiarism, there’s her random raving against profanity, and worst of all, there’s the completely frivolous addition of her past as a hospital baby-killer. The discovery of a scrapbook indicating this is a particularly egregious screenwriting shortcut — why would Annie keep a clipping of an article about her own indictment in a scrapbook? The groan-inducingly silly way it’s first mentioned as an aside about “the witness stand in Denver” is worse yet, contributing to the feeling that the film is more a comedy sketch than a thriller, and just about as coherently considered. Why is Annie free now, exactly? What is it about her that attracts her to Caan’s books? How did she become what she is? None of this — all things that would give the film the depth it needs — even has a hint of an answer. The runtime is instead filled out by a Fargo-predicting parallel story about the small-town police investigation, with an amusing turn by Richard Farnsworth, but in every sense — the cross-cutting with the main plot, the inevitable violent conclusion — it’s just a retread of the Scatman Crothers scenes in The Shining, except without the Sno-Cat payoff that made that element necessary.
Having not read King’s novel and not strongly possessed of a desire to do so, I still imagine that — since it’s chiefly about the act of reading and/or writing — the story is better served by its original form. Cann’s character is a long-suffering-in-his-own-estimation (and wealthy) bestselling author struggling to be taken seriously amidst the sneering of critics, with the slim consolation of throngs of adoring fans; it’s hard not to see him as a King surrogate, which unfortunately opens up a few other doors into how we’re supposed to take this story. Having a psychopath stand in for your own audience and fanbase has its automatic disadvantages; if we’re meant to be on Caan’s side, this complicates our relationship with him. Who really wants to identify with the person who has shaped his followers into the archetype with a closetful of pills and syringes, a house decked out with dusty miniatures and deceptive peace, seemingly always ready for the day when some invalid hero would wreck his car and put his life in her hands? We fall under the spell, but I think we all subconsciously know who the real “bad guy” is; the inflated importance ascribed to the written word over human contact throughout the film, aside from a few bones thrown to bad marriages and accidentally estranged children, implies the limitations of King’s perspective on the world.
There’s some deliberate camp value to Bates’ over-the-top character, but she gives it her all and, as badly as the film treats her, she earns her Academy Award by finding the dimension and human familiarity in a poorly written part that would otherwise suffer from being callous; after all, is it menacing and funny for the baby-killing villain to be a lonely, large woman who enjoys lying in bed with a bag of Cheetos and Love Connection, or is it just plain mean? In fairness, you can do worse than to view Misery as a black comedy, even if mostly one about the warped self-aggrandizing fantasies of a writer who’s inescapably full of himself. One thing that can’t be written off as some sort of irony when it makes you giggle is the completely needless coda. The acting in this “goofy” epilogue about Caan’s Serious New Book is terrible, as is the dialogue, and the last “gag” is lifted directly from Strangers on a Train, though the execution is closer to a Huey Lewis video. It would have been much better to simply end with Caan on the floor, Bates dead, dealing with the aftermath. (And to not have the Farnsworth subplot in the film at all, but now we’re rewriting the entire film.) Made in the middle of a run of commercial juggernauts for Reiner before his astounding crash and burn in the mid-’90s, Misery is a fine time as you don’t try to scrutinize it or find any relevance or truth in its characters.
[Edited and revised from a 2006 writeup.]