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SOUL SISTERS

"Sometimes," says Dolores Claiborne "being a bitch is all a woman has to hold on to." By some lights, that wouldn't exactly be a cardinal feminist tenet but in Stephen Kingville it will do nicely. (Remember, too, that after Newt Gingrich's Mother flung the word at Hillary Clinton, Several professional women-including Mary Matalin-said it ought to be worn with pride rather than the shame that social primness dictates.) Dolores knows where of she speaks. Her husband delights in getting drunk and calling her fat and ugly-preferably in front of as many people as possible but privately is OK with him, as long as he can beat her a little too. Which brings up the other operative principle of Taylor Hackford's sordid but superbly acted, visually extraordinary and emotionally compelling "Dolores Claiborne" -"An Accident can be an unhappy woman's best friend." Dolores strange penchant for being around when fatal accidents occur brings her face to face with estranged daughter- a hard-drinking, Pill-popping staff reporter for Esquire. What we discover by movie's end has to be the most dysfunctional family in the state of Maine. "Dolores Claiborne" opens on the same day in the nation's movie theaters-P.J. Hogan's crude but likeable "Muriel's Wedding" whose Australian heroine is a plain, overweight social outcast who shows up at weddings in a stolen leopard skin dress. Muriel's family can't quite approach the Claibornes for dysfunction but they, too, are a bit of a horror-full of sluggards and spongers and infidels and the occasional suicide.

Dolores and Muriel are sisters across a generation and a couple of oceans -- overweight, hard-working misfits from tiny, unforgiving provincial towns who find life-defining friendships with another woman and ultimate triumph. (To make a movie about a woman who is called "fat and ugly" without her ultimate triumph would be unthinkable, even in the revolting Howard Stern "Dumb and Dumber" era we live in.)

It's fascinating, I think, that these New Feminist fantasies are both from men, not women. They're movies from men informing women what some men admire in feminism. One of them -- "Dolores Claiborne" -- is even good. A report:

Dolores Claiborne

Anyone looking for another larky, semi-juvenile fish-town Gothic yarn from Stephen King has another guess coming when they encounter Taylor Hackford's dark and dire movie. What they'll see is a sterling vehicle for two of the best working film actresses -- Kathy Bates as Dolores, a flinty, unhappy woman who manages to be tough, loving and funny despite it all, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as her petulant, Scotch-swilling, pill-juggling troubled daughter. (Note that her name is Selena, a nice little joke of King's and a tip-off for those steeped in the lore and relationships of Grace Metalious' Peyton Place.)

To put the pressure on both of them is Christopher Plummer as the Grand Inquisitor from Maine's D.A.'s office, determined to find enough proof to put Dolores behind bars.

Her first fortuitous accident was the death of her husband. The second was the death of the wealthy, bed-ridden invalid for whom she cared and provided the only link to the outside world.

Bates won an Oscar for an earlier trip to Kingville, "Misery." She is almost as good here, having found on film forever, the exact point where strong maternalism and devotion meets implacable truculence. In "Misery," it was in the area of homicidal psychosis. In "Dolores Claiborne," it's a different neighborhood entirely -- feminist strength.

Not only is Kathy Bates a fine actress, the idea of Kathy Bates has become one of the most interesting in American movies -- a plain, overweight, middle-aged woman who is a major star for one reason and one reason alone: she's very, very good. In the Age of "Seinfeld" Culture, that's no small achievement.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is an even more interesting actress than Bates. Where Bates has the flamboyant self-confidence of a gifted and very experienced stage actress, Leigh has the eerie self-effacement and willfulness of a screen actress. Unless she can submerse herself into a part -- unless she can wipe out all of what we'd call "self" -- she probably couldn't work. When she's good ("Single White Female," parts of this), there's something innately spooky about what she does and how she goes about doing it. She's the perfect foil for Bates in Gothic Kingville.

Director Taylor Hackford ("An Officer and a Gentleman", "Against All Odds") brings two unusual things to this: an extraordinary visual facility and a pitiless sense of the hardness of Dolores' life. She's a woman whose entire life consists of being abused by others -- husbands, employers, bankers etc. She's the sort of woman the world appoints to scrub floors and empty bedpans, and Hackford carefully and wisely piles on the grinding details of her life. Let others soup up their King adaptations, he'll go with reality -- a world of small-town Maine people hardened by weather, work and poverty.

He'll also go with a complex and beautifully detailed visual scheme -- a pervading grayness for all the scenes set in the present, a warm flood of color and increasing surrealism in the constant flashbacks, including some impressive use of images he admits stealing from the great Belgian painter Rene Magritte. The visualization of the eclipse at the climax of "Dolores Claiborne" by Hackford and his British cinematogrpaher Gabriel Beristain is a very gaudy achievement in a film whose gaudiness is kept to a severe minimum.

There aren't many "thrills" in this King thriller. Instead, intelligence takes its place. To some, no doubt, it will be an unsatisfying substitute.

Muriel's Wedding

"Welcome to Porpoise Spit, the Jewel of the Northeast," says the sign on the outskirts of town. "Welcome" is the last thing Muriel finds in Porpoise Spit. Mostly what she finds is constant verbal abuse and humiliation from the In Crowd of her old high school ("You bring us down, you embarrass us.") and almost as much at home. Inside she dreams of a beautiful married life with Abba's "Dancing Queen" providing the soundtrack.

"If I can get married," she says, "it means I'm a new person."

She isn't just plain and fat, she's dishonest, too. She steals, rather a lot (in '50s Freudianism, goods substitute for love). But then her father, a town councilman, is the sort who brags about knowing how to work all the angles. "I like helping," he says (any resemblance to the credo of a former long-term Buffalo politico is, of course, accidental).

She moves to Sydney, "City of Bridges," on stolen dough, takes up with an old school chum named Rhonda who has become a lusty consumer of the Working Girl's Good Life, Singles Bar Division. Soon the two wild and crazy girls are entering lip-synch contests doing Abba's "Waterloo." Then tragedy strikes and some entirely unpredictable plot complications which are tied up with a fatiguingly predictable ending.

P.J. Hogan's film seems to be a '90s Aussie try at an updated "Georgy Girl." It's far too crude for that.

But as off-puttingly crude as it can be (a quality the Australians, to be frank, are sometimes renowned for), it's never less than likable and, for the indulgent, maybe even lovable. No small part of that is Toni Collette as young Muriel who looks a little like Tyne Daly (now, not the way she looked 25 years ago) and succeeds in being weirdly appealing even when the film is making a big deal of how unappealing she is. There's something engaging within -- call it beauty if you want -- and Collette is a smart enough actress to know how to bring it out in every scene.

She is, by far, the best thing about "Muriel's Wedding."

REVIEW
Dolores Claiborne

Rating:**** Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Taylor Hackford version of Stephen King thriller. Rated R, opening Friday in area theaters. Muriel's Wedding

Rating:*** Australian comedy about an ug ly duckling from the town of Porpoise Spit. Written and directed by P.J. Hogan. Rated R, opening Friday in area theaters.

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