Friday, October 26, 2007

Film Review #131: Misery
Director: Rob Reiner
Cast: Kathy Bates, James Caan, Richard Farnsworth

I’m sure other places have their stalkers. But there’s something peculiarly American about obsessed fans targeting celebrities. It’s embedded in the stories we tell here, ever since the frontier West, with its sheer expanse, invention and excess – and its desperados and swindlers – gave rise to dime novels and trashy headlines. And our celebrities have often been bandits in some way or other too, playing fast and loose, only to meet their come-uppance from self-appointed judges.

Suppose fandom gone awry is one new brand of frontier justice? It’s no coincidence that David Milch began his HBO series Deadwood with the murder of Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) by a resentful fan who shot him in the back during a poker game after Hickok dissed his reverence. The show’s entire first season really occurs in the shadow of Wild Bill’s murder. Now we wait week after week here in Central New York for Brad Pitt’s new movie, but how many films have re-counted how hanger-on Robert Howard shot Jesse James, also in the back? Netflix carries DVDs of a dozen such films, including San Fuller’s recently re-issued 1949 classic, I Shot Jesse James, which recounts how Ford – playing himself – turned that event into popular touring entertainment.

The story of best-selling romance novelist Paul Sheldon’s abduction by his deranged “number one fan,” Annie Wilkes, seems headed for similar longevity and there’s more than a whiff of parallel. Careening down a Colorado mountain road in a blizzard, fueled by champagne because he’s just finished a novel, his radio blasting Junior Walker’s “Shotgun” and his baby blue Mustang slewing around those hairpins, Sheldon (James Caan) plunges right off a wilderness cliff. Then a powerful, completely bundled figure – not obviously female – plucks him as easily as a doll from the wreckage.

Kathy Bates won an Oscar for her full-tilt Annie Wilkes, by lightening veers efficient, playful, adoring, easily flattered, coldly annihilating. The ex-nurse first sets Paul’s crushed legs, then holds him prisoner so he can write again, resurrecting the heroine he tried to kill off. Annie imagines the world will soon know her as Sheldon’s “muse,” but decides a suicide pact is their destiny when a nosy old-school sheriff (Richard Farnsworth) intrudes on her “spread” outside town. “I’ve given it some thought, darling,” Annie confides earnestly after one raging outburst, putting it as someone a third her age might, “and I think the main reason I haven’t been more popular is my temper.”

Stephen King published his novel Misery – partially based on his own abduction by a fan – in 1987. Rob Reiner directed the 1990 screen version, following an earlier King adaptation (Stand by Me). Screenwriter William Goldman came aboard for the first of three collaborations with King. This movie has returned on DVD six times now, the latest just this month. In 1992 Simon Moore adapted Misery for live performance. That play opened last night at Syracuse Stage, with a nod to King as “master of horror,” as we head for Halloween But I think Annie Wilkes’ horror is more home-grown than otherworldly.

Consider the figure of Paul Sheldon, whose choice of car and music immediately echoes the Old West, and whose career trajectory conjures traces of outlaw celebrity and disappointed fans. He considers himself a fake and a thief for writing sentimental, formulaic trash. His Manhattan agent (Lauren Bacall) tartly reminds him that the travails of Misery Chastain, spread over ten books, have bought his daughter’s braces and put her through college. But Paul Sheldon was on that Colorado mountain – old gold rush country – to reinvent himself with a manuscript that restores his self-respect. His first clue about Annie is precisely her heart-felt belief in the brilliance of his Misery books. Nearly as devoted to the kitsch pianist Liberace, she helpfully pipes endless looping tracks of his renditions of “I’ll Be Seeing You” and Tchaikovsky’s “Moonlight Sonata” into Paul’s room to inspire his creativity. Along comes Buster the sheriff, right out of Dodge City with his Stetson and handlebar mustache and sheepskin jacket and laid-back ways. Whatever their artistic yearnings and veneer, you know this signals that Paul and Annie’s showdown is savage when it comes.

It’s also worth watching Reiner and Goldman, both action thriller veterans, move their story along on tension and dread, setting parallel scenes racing against one another: Annie’s truck sliding by Buster’s office window with a shark’s silent menace, Sheldon’s hurried, painful, secret forays out of bed during Annie’s trips to town, her own escalating outbursts against Buster’s steady, intuitive but plodding search. It makes you worry that this fan stuff is more than a phase.

This review appeared in the 10/25/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.