If "Misery" loves company, it needs to be inviting. But Rob Reiner's mechanical adaptation of the Stephen King thriller never so much as asks us in for a cup of poison. A weak handshake of a movie, it is slightly repellent -- hardly gripping, much less knuckle-whitening. This "Psycho" for fatsos is as self-aware as it is styleless.

Kathy Bates, best known for Broadway's " 'Night, Mother," plays the plain and piggy Annie, a mentally unbalanced middle-aged nurse who is obsessed with Misery Chastain, the heroine of a series of popular romance novels by writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan). We're supposed to indulge our fat phobia and loathe the poor thing, but Bates is such an exceptional actress that we not only sympathize with her mad Annie, we also understand her better than we do Caan's dried-up hero.

As with other held-against-your-will movies -- "The Collector," "Tattoo" and even "Lock Up" -- the premise is a thin and wearisome one. Annie, who has been following Paul, saves his life when his car plunges into a Colorado ravine during a blizzard. Both his legs are broken and a shoulder is dislocated, but Annie ably sets the breaks and doses him with painkillers. When the weather clears, she promises the drugged and battered patient, she will move him to the hospital.

Annie the Good Samaritan becomes Annie the Outpatient when she reads the manuscript for Sheldon's new book, a departure from the Misery series, and finds it filled with profanity. She loses her grip altogether when she buys his last Misery book only to find out that her heroine dies in childbirth. "You're just another old dirty birdy," says the outraged Annie, who forces Paul to burn his manuscript and then write another in which he brings Misery back from the grave.

There's little doubt that the long-suffering Paul represents not only the filmmakers but tortured artists everywhere. The novels he writes for money win popular acceptance, while his one true work of art is not only rejected but also censored. Annie, with her small, sick mind, is offended by the "ooky" words. A nightmarish parody of an editor, she is the anti-muse, complete with a snootful of Chee-tos and a demanding pet sow.

Though primarily a tale of the lumpen ("What's that ceiling the dago painted?") and the literate ("The Sistine Chapel"), the movie also features Lauren Bacall as his agent, Richard Farnsworth as Sheriff Buster and Frances Sternhagen as the sheriff's wife. Buster and the missus have a cute and cantankerous rapport and more appeal than the star couple as they snoop around the foothills looking for the missing writer. Caan, who spends most of the movie doped and bedridden, is not heroic, resourceful or animated. It's a baked potato of a performance.

Written for the screen by William Goldman, "Misery" is best when it is grotesquely comic, its campy humor born of Annie's domestic dementia. A real Hollywood insider's creation, the movie turns on fear of not only fans and fame but also needles, sledgehammers, Liberace music and not being taken seriously. It is a painful parable about losing the right to choose. And just in time for the holidays, too.

Misery, at area theaters, is rated R for brutality.