I entered the word “ponderous” into a thesaurus website, and I kind of just want to list the results — which include “plodding,” “long-winded,” “heavy,” and “tedious” — as my entire review of “Lisey’s Story.” The latest Stephen King adaptation, written for TV by the master himself, is a stone-cold slog. It’s good-looking, but in a music-video, woo-woo way that works for maybe three minutes before it aggravates. Oh how I longed for just a skosh of feet-on-the-ground, time-bound reality.
Despite a strong cast, the eight-episode miniseries, which premieres Friday on Apple TV+, is also dogged by an absence of solidly drawn characters. Maybe if we had an early episode with a narrative that didn’t invariably slide in and out of dreams and memories, if we knew who these people were before we were expected to care about the fate of their souls, it might all be more meaningful. Instead, we instantly see the characters suffering drearily — from grief, from mental illness, from catatonia — without feeling the weight of the tragedy and horror raining down on them. While we see repeating, artsy symbols, many of them involving water and pools, and while we hear about a magical place called “Boo’ya Moon,” we never get a strong impression of the marriage at the center of it all, between Julianne Moore’s Lisey Landon and Clive Owen’s Scott Landon.
The story is set two years after Scott’s death. He was a best-selling author not unlike King, with many hard-core fans, including some that Scott called “deep-space cowboys.” One of these cowboys, Dane DeHaan’s Jim, has been sent by a Landon scholar (Ron Cephas Jones’s Professor Dashmiel) to violently press Lisey, “Misery”-like, into releasing Scott’s papers and unpublished manuscripts, which, for some reason, she won’t do. Meanwhile, Lisey and her resentful sister Darla (Jennifer Jason Leigh) are coping with the breakdown and self-harm of their sister Amanda (Joan Allen). When he was alive, Scott would mentally travel to what he called Boo’ya Moon, where he learned to go after his father abused him and his brother. Now Amanda has gotten stuck in that safe place, as she sits in a sanatorium staring off into space.
Or something like that. It’s all intentionally muddled by King and director Pablo Larrain, as the scenes keep giving way to the past, and to Lisey’s remembrances of her marriage, and to the time Scott was shot by a fan, and to Scott’s own recollections of his childhood, and to images of Boo’ya Moon and its pool, and to other actual or hallucinated locales. The porousness of the action becomes frustrating and, ultimately, off-putting. I don’t mind being toyed with by a show; I don’t need strict linearity. But the willful swirl and the withholding of coherence are too extreme here. We’re meant to feel a little like the confused Lisey, as she tries to figure out a treasure hunt of clues that Scott has left for her — but it doesn’t work. These days, too many shows rely too heavily on shifting time frames, one of the legacies of “Lost.” “Lisey’s Story” is a prime example of that excess.
Moore makes it all a bit more tolerable, particularly when Lisey — known to some of Scott’s fans as “Yoko Landon” — refuses to run and hide when she knows Jim is coming for her. Most of the time, she’s playing someone overwhelmed by anxiety or screaming with fury, but those occasions when she’s able to be nervy stand out. Owen is fine, but the script doesn’t provide a palpable sense of who Scott was when he wasn’t talking about or inhabiting Boo’ya Moon. DeHaan is over the top, but fittingly so, as the misogynist torturer who talks of Scott as if he’s a god. Allen is haunting, if one-note, as a woman on the brink of this world, and Leigh brings as much spark as she can to her underwritten character. There certainly is plenty of talent afoot in “Lisey’s Story,” but it all seems unharnessed in this muddled mirage.
Starring: Julianne Moore, Clive Owen, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Joan Allen, Ron Cephas Jones, Dane DeHaan, Michael Pitt
On: Apple TV+. Premieres Friday.