Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Maine Stay: "Thinner" (1996)

Stephen King's novel (written under the name Richard Bachman) makes a successful transition to the screen.

Billy (Robert John Burke) is a highly successful defense attorney, getting an acquittal for known mobster Richie (Joe Mantegna). He is trying to diet, topping the scales at three hundred pounds. One night while driving home, Heidi (Lucinda Jenney), Billy's wife, begins fooling around in the car with his lap (and I think you know what I mean). In the throes of passion, Billy does not see an elderly gypsy woman crossing the street, runs over her, and kills her.

The judge and police chief conspire to cover the crime up, and the death is ruled accidental. That does not sit well with the old woman's even older father, Lempke (Michael Constantine), who brushes Billy's cheek and whispers the title of the film. Soon, Billy is dropping three or four pounds a day. He seems to be disappearing before everyone's eyes, but concern sets in. He is eating twelve thousand calories a day, still losing weight, and now Heidi and his doctor (Sam Freed) are spending a little too much time together. Billy decides to track down the gypsies, especially after hearing and witnessing others in on the conspiracy were cursed as well, and he mistakenly enlists Richie to help him.

Greg Cannom's special effects make-up is phenomenal. He has won Oscars in the past, and he should have won again for this film. Burke is totally believable going from 300 to 124 pounds in the span of the story. It helps that Burke's performance is as flawless as his make-up. He does not let all that latex and rubber get in the way, and goes from sympathetic to slightly deranged rather well. Jenney is also good as Heidi, although her character is often relegated to the "supportive wife" routine.

The first hour of the film is very suspenseful. Billy is chasing the gypsies, and the authorities are chasing him. However, the film's biggest flaw was also the novel's biggest flaw- letting the convenient mob friend Richie help get revenge on the gypsies. Mantegna is one of those great actors who never receives his just credit, but here his character is just a caricature of mob types Mantegna has played before (especially on "The Simpsons," try listening to Mantegna and not hearing Fat Tony.)

Holland's direction keeps things fresh, he shockingly shot this on location in Maine instead of fleeing to Canada like most Hollywood films, but the screenplay feels rushed most of the time. I wonder if this would have made a more effective transition to mini-series form, something King has been doing a lot more of lately.

I was surprised by "Thinner." Considering what some film makers have done to King's work, it is a better adaptation when put in that context. Strongly anchored by believable make-up and gore effects, and a fantastic central performance, I will recommend it. (* * * *) out of five stars.