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Script Suffocates Dolores

By Theodore K. Gideonse

Dolores Claiborne

Starring Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judy Parfitt & Christopher Plummer drected by Taylor Hackford

There is a place in cinema for commercialism. Big budget movies like "Batman Returns," ridiculous farces like "The Mask," and pure kitsch like "The Brady Bunch" make no pretense of being fine art. They're pure fun, and they know it. But sometimes Hollywood latches on to a story and a cast of quality and breaks their legs with a sledgehammer, one by one, in the name of "accessibility." The simplest verdict is that the screenwriter killed the film.

"Dolores" has potential. The film is based on Stephen King's novel about a middle aged Downeast Maine housekeeper (Kathy Bates) who is suspected of committing two murders. Dolores was investigated for killing her husband Joe (David Strathairn) twenty years ago, and is now under suspicion in the recent death of Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt), her long-time employer. Detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer), who investigated Joe's death but couldn't pin it on her, returns to investigate the death of Vera. He is determined to nail Dolores for it. The film departs from the book when Dolores' daughter Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh), seen only as a child in flashbacks in the novel, returns to Little Tall Island after fifteen years when she hears her mother is being investigated for murder.

The plot revolves around the complex relations surrounding Dolores, Selena and the death of Joe. Through a series of vibrantly photographed and seamlessly edited flashbacks, we watch a thirtyish Dolores deal with Joe's abuse and alcoholism, her new job as Vera's housekeeper and the erratic behavior of teen-aged Selena (over-acted by the newcomer Ellen Muth). Meanwhile, in the present, the pill-popping Selena tries to negotiate some sort of relationship with her mother while protecting her from the nasty detective. As the movie progress, we learn the vaguely shocking and not terribly original truth about the deaths of Joe and Vera.

The courtroom-melodrama ending ruins any hope of "Dolores" being a great movie. Not only is it unbelievable, but it is so cheesy that one wonders whether or not director Taylor Hackford spliced in an out-take from "The Player," a movie that makes delicious fun of such trite Hollywood endings.

The source of all of "Dolores Claiborne's" problems is the script, adapted by Tony Gilroy. It should have been burned months before production started. Who in their right mind would have given the screenwriter of the hockey-cum-figure-skating love epic, "The Cutting Edge," another job?

The adult Selena should not be in the movie. In King's book, she disappears as a teen-ager; Gilroy brings her back tediously to confront the issues involving her father's death. She should have stayed in the void. Leigh's Selena is a whiskey-swilling, cigarette-smoking caricature of a journalist, who spends the majority of her scenes complaining. Jennifer Jason Leigh has her moments with Selena, especially in the epiphany scene on the ferry, but for the most part Leigh's acting skills are wasted by the script. She just reprises her addiction roles from "Dorothy Parker and the Vicious Circle" and "Rush." Move on, Jennifer.

Christopher Plummer, a brilliant actor whose agent should be shot, is also shamed by his lines. His bad-cop-with-a-grudge character is so badly written (and directed) that he looks and sounds like a bad Jack Palance imitation. It's embarrassing to watch.

"Dolores Claiborne's" script is at its best when it sticks with King's wonderful characterizations. With ease and humor, Kathy Bates plays the over-worked and under-paid housekeeper who has little happiness in her life besides pride in her daughter. Although her Maine accent is imperfect, Bates delivers Dolores' obnoxious, caustic lines with perfect subtlety. Shifting from a tired fifty year-old to a spritely thirty year-old every other scene is not a feat many actors can accomplish, but Bates skillfully ages Dolores' body movements and psyche.

Dolores' scenes with Joe and Vera are the best of the movie, not only because Bates does them so well, but also because the other characters are so well developed by the actors. Judy Parfitt is chilling as the fascistic, over-powering Nancy Reaganesque hostess; and David Strathairn portrays Joe with psychotic evil. Bates won the Oscar for her amazing performance as a crazed literary fan in "Misery;" in "Dolores Claiborne" she continues to prove that she is the perfect King actress.

Three excellent performances, beautiful cinematography, and good flashback editing cannot save "Dolores Claiborne" from its suffocating script. Hollywood has corrupted this movie by turning King's confessional into a flat mother-daughter drama. At least it doesn't have an alternogrunge soundtrack.

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