Stephen King doesn't scare Kathy Bates. She won an Oscar as a lethal nurse in Rob Reiner's film of King's Misery. Now she's back as a lethal house-keeper in Taylor Hackford's film of King's Dolores Claiborne. Despite Bates' mastery at bringing unexpected depth to unhinged characters, Dolores is a few pints low on chills and challenge. King's novel was a dexterous stunt, a first-person monologue by Dolores that exposed the soul and wit of a woman and the harsh Maine existence that formed her.
Hackford's film drags on for more than two hours but fails to find the secret heart of the wife and mother suspected of killing her abusive husband, Joe, played for hisses by David Strathairn. Joe, given to whacking a wife he calls "fat ass" and diddling his young daughter, gets his during a 1975 solar eclipse. Though Dolores is not indicted in that murder, 20 years later she is accused of killing Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt), her tyrant employer. To open up the film, screenwriter Tony Gilroy (The Catting Edge) expands the role of the grown daughter, Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an Esquire reporter estranged from her mother who returns to Maine to find out whodunit.
Leigh is a fiercely intelligent actress, but her role is a clunky contrivance to give Dolores a sounding board and unearth memories Selena has buried about her dirty daddy. All is revealed in lurid flashbacks. For most of the film. Selens spews whiny resentment at her mother while swilling booze and popping pills — the usual Hollywood view of New York writers. Leigh's arch scenes with Eric Bogosian, as her Esquire editor, provoke even more unintentional laughs.
To make room for Selena and her career, Gilroy jettisons characters (Dolores had three children in the book) and relationships of family and community that made the novel memorable. King went easy on fright to ramp up the psychological horror. The movie stays skin deep. "Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold on to in this world," Dolores tells her daughter, reducing complex emotions to the easily swallowed bromides hawked by Oprah, Geraldo or Jenny Jones. At one ponderous point, Dolores declares she is "just about half past give a shit." Well said.