Kathy Bates has a gift for playing cheerily hostile, paranoid misfits. Her personality is like a small series of shocks: She can slip from politeness to rage in a millisecond, and when she does you realize that the two states are virtually identical — that she’s simply a control freak who has gone from controlling herself to controlling you. Bates brought a snappish, no-nonsense anger to her role as a yuppie-food-store owner in this year’s Men Don’t Leave, and her performance is the comic spark that drives Misery (Directed by Rob Reiner), the bluntly entertaining one-joke movie that has been fashioned from Stephen King’s 1987 novel.
Set in the snowy mountains of Colorado, this cabin-fever horror comedy is about a famous romance novelist, Paul Sheldon (James Caan), who drives off the edge of the road during a blizzard, suffers two broken legs, and is rescued by his ”number one fan,” Annie Wilkes (Bates), a prim, fat, gruesomely repressed psychopathic nerd who straps Paul into bed and makes him her patient and her prisoner. Annie, a professional nurse, lives by herself in a cozy Victorian house tucked away in the Colorado wilderness. Her whole life is a series of depressive diversions: She loves to sit in bed scarfing Cheetos and watching Love Connection, and she has devoured all of Paul’s Misery novels, a series of trashy best-sellers featuring the beloved romantic heroine Misery Chastain. As it happens, Paul is sick of writing about Misery. He has just completed a more serious, autobiographical novel, and his latest Misery installment (which is about to be published) finally kills the character off.
When Annie learns that Paul has written her favorite heroine out of existence, she feels personally betrayed; it’s as though he had murdered her fantasy life. Yet even before she makes this grisly discovery, her idolization of Paul is so extreme — so tangled up with her inability to live in the real world — that it’s obvious she’s off her rocker. The movie, which is like a feature-length variation on the Sandra Bernhard-Jerry Lewis duet in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, creates a satirical version of a pop fan’s crushing ardor: Annie loves Paul Sheldon so much she wants to consume him. At the same time, she’s terrified that he might not live up to her dreams. (She’s aghast when she discovers that his new novel is full of swear words.) Misery is a series of escalating sick gags in which Annie, wielding her ”devotion” like an ax, threatens and cajoles Paul into writing yet another Misery novel . and bringing the character back to life.
Bates gives Annie an underlying homicidal gleam, but most of the time she plays her with a hilariously sunny, apple-pie earnestness that recalls Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. With her sexless clothes, her prominently displayed crucifix, and her hair styled in the same chaste, medium-length flip she has probably worn since the second grade, Annie is a girl who never grew up — she’s the proverbial class creep sitting silently in the back row, mooning over the boys she could never dream of dating. Bates makes full use of her imposing physique, and cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld (Raising Arizona) emphasizes her bulk by employing his looming, wide-angle-lens cartoon style. You get the feeling Annie’s girth is there to reign in her anger; without all that weight, she’d explode. At the same time, when you look at her oval face, with its clear, hopeful eyes and cherubic lips, you can glimpse the once-pretty girl still hiding under the flesh.
Misery would have been richer and creepier if the movie, in at least a few scenes, had lured us into sympathizing with Annie. Instead, we see her entirely from Paul’s horrified point of view. The film ends up turning crudely vicious: It gets the audience cheering for Annie’s destruction in a way that recalls the garish climax of Fatal Attraction. The chief limitation of William Goldman’s screenplay is that Annie’s reverence for the Misery books is presented in a completely generic way. The satire exists on a comedy-sketch level. It never extends beyond the most stereotypical idea of why lonely people are drawn to the reassuring banalities of schlock literature. And Rob Reiner’s direction is a bit on the poky side. Misery is clever yet pedestrian. Much of the time, we could be watching a first-rate episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Yet the movie has a real kick to it. As Paul and Annie attempt to outsmart each other, Misery gets nastier and nastier. It turns into a psychotic cat-and-mouse game, and there are some genuine shocks. Caan, in a slyly funny performance, doesn’t overplay Paul’s ”misery.” The situation is so extreme that all he has to do is let us read the lines on his forehead. Caan lets you see that, for Paul, being tortured by Annie isn’t just a nightmare; it’s a profound learning experience. After years of churning out Misery novels, Paul realizes that on some level he did it to himself. He got the fan he deserved. B+