By Owen Gleiberman
Updated March 31, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

If there are any lingering doubts that extreme familial dysfunction (you know, abuse, repressed memory, that sort of thing) has become an official movie cliche, they’ll be laid to rest by DOLORES CLAIBORNE (Columbia, R). Based on Stephen King’s 1992 novel, this solemnly ludicrous ”psychological” thriller is like one of Hollywood’s old-hag gothics turned into a therapeutic grouse-a- thon-it’s Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte for the Age of Oprah. Pudgy and sullen, her hair a miserable mop of dishevelment, Kathy Bates is in full irritable cry as Dolores Claiborne, a middle-aged widow who has been an outcast in her lonely Maine village ever since her husband was killed and she was suspected of doing the deed. Though the police never succeeded in pinning anything on Dolores, everyone in town believes that she’s guilty, making her a kind of spooky poster harridan for womanly vengeance: Jean Harris meets Lizzie Borden. In the movie’s howler of an opening scene, we witness what may be her second attempt at murder: Dolores scuffling with her employer, the aging rich bitch Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt), who goes tumbling down the stairs, at which point Dolores ends up standing over the crippled old woman with a marble rolling pin, poised to strike. Talk about misery! With Dolores under suspicion yet again, her estranged daughter, an alcoholic magazine journalist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), shows up in town and, in the midst of hostile soul chats with her mother, proceeds to unravel the mystery behind Dolores’ alleged crimes. We get extended flashbacks to the wretchedness that was life with father; they feature David Strathairn, cast against type (and showing the strain) as cruel, drunken Joe, who’s such a leering cartoon of a working-class ogre that his scenes are like the domestic- hell sitcom in Natural Born Killers played straight. Even more grotesque are the interludes between Dolores and Vera, who form a sisterhood of shrewish distemper sealed by the line ”Sometimes, being a bitch is all a woman has to hold on to!” Since there is a mystery, the movie might have been entertaining camp had director Taylor Hackford staged it with pace, style, or a whisper of surprise. Instead, the plot just clunks forward-for two hours and 10 minutes. We have more than enough time to notice all the bad acting, whether it’s Bates whining out her lines in a morose Down East drawl or Leigh sounding as blank and bored as if she were reading the script for the first time. What no one connected with Dolores Claiborne seems to have quite realized is that this is the sort of thing that’s demented trash when it’s done well. Done badly, it’s just demented. D+

Episode Recaps

Dolores Claiborne

  • Movie
  • R