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Seeing 'Thinner' just waste away Review: Curses on this flimsy film that sets out with a promising conceit only to offend everyone within view: heavy people, Gypsies, Italians and the ticket buyer.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Stephen King published his novel "Thinner" under his pseudonym, Richard Bachman. It's puzzling then why he'd be more inclined to have his real name affixed to the title of this witless movie version.

The film's distributors seem to have recognized the potential for embarrassment, which explains why they neglected to make "Thinner" available for advanced screening.

In the end, though, they did King no great favors. They released the movie anyway. But the Master of Horror is no innocent here. King himself appears in a bit part as a druggist squinting through thick eyeglasses.

With luck, his vision will be too blurred to ever make out what they've done to his book here.

The film is based on what was a clever idea: a fat guy who has been woefully incapable of sticking to a diet begins losing all the weight he could ever imagine -- and more -- while still able to eat everything in sight. The problem is, it seems likely he'll continue to shed pounds until he disappears from this earth altogether.

The movie might have had fun with this conceit -- no one's more obsessed with weight loss than Americans -- but director Tim Holland is determined to keep "Thinner" firmly fixed on a single, though quickly tiresome track.

The film introduces us to Billy Halleck (Robert John Burke), a suburban Connecticut lawyer who is well-meaning and generous-hearted.

Right away we know this movie won't be terribly grounded in reality. Halleck is a loving, if somewhat dim, husband and father who looks kindly upon all creatures great and small.

He also looks something like a Thanksgiving Day float, touching the scales at just under 300 pounds. No dessert tray gets by Billy unmolested and to tide him over those inconvenient times when he can't be stuffing his face in a restaurant, he carries around a ubiquitous bag of Doritos.

Ten minutes into the film and you feel bloated yourself.

Aside from the nagging of his two-timing wife Heidi (played by the unlikable Lucinda Jenney), all seems fine with Billy's world until the couple is driving home one night and she decides to favor him with some loving attention. Distracted, Billy doesn't see an elderly Gypsy woman walk into the path of his car until it's too late.

Because Billy is a pillar of the community, his guilt in causing the woman's death is swept under the rug and forgiven by all, except for the old woman's father, the ancient patriarch of the traveling Gypsy band. Outside the courthouse, the old man, who has a mane of white hair and an unaccountably decaying face, touches Billy's cheek with his thumb while pronouncing a single word, "Thinner."

Soon enough, the pounds are falling off Billy like sweat from a marathoner. He can suddenly see his feet again and his pants no longer stay up -- this even as he shovels bowls of whipped cream into his mouth.

"I finally found a diet that works," he tells his daughter. "Eat all you want and you still lose weight."

The gauge on the bathroom scale falls to 200 and then on toward 100, and his doctor can't explain what's going on. But the ever-more-cadaverous Billy knows, and he takes off after the Gypsy leader to convince him to remove "The Curse of the Weight-Watchers."

But "Thinner" provides little suspense and no chills, not to mention rather offensive treatment of Gypsies, Italians and women. Acting isn't at a premium either.

Burke's technique consists of widening his eyes and talking in a low, barely audible voice. The rest of the cast isn't much better, including, sadly to say, the great Joe Mantegna. Here Mantegna plays Billy's friend, the Mafia boss with the heart of gold. Mantegna will remind you less of John Gotti than Bill Murray's lounge lizard.

As for getting rid of the curse, well, by the end of the movie, the screenwriters seem to have lost interest in the whole affair. Even the final twist -- it's actually the only twist -- is so uninvolving and predictable that you find yourself hoping you're wrong just to preserve just one surprise. Tough luck.

It's pretty thin stuff.

'Stephen King's Thinner' Starring Robert John Burke and Joe Mantegna

Directed by Tom Holland

Released by Paramount Pictures

Rated R (violence and language)

Sun score:

Pub Date: 10/26/96

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