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Nightmares & Dreamscapes: Umney’s Last Case (TV)

Nightmares & Dreamscapes Umney reviewStarring William H. Macy, Jacqueline McKenzie

Directed by Rob Bowman

Written by April Smith


Okay… okay… so I’ve been accused by some of being a King purist, disliking any adaptation that deviates at all from its source material just for the sake of the differences. A lot of the time I do dislike changes made to works of King’s that are arbitrary and pointless, mainly because they add nothing to the story. Stuff like changing Bev’s married name from Bev Rogan to Bev Grogan in the miniseries version of IT… When changes are made, if they are done with respect for the written work, I don’t mind them. I love Shawshank Redemption, and Darabont took quite a few liberties with that story.

My point is, as a writer, I may be prickly about messing with someone’s work, but if it improves the story, I can sort of see the point. Granted, I get pricklier the more I liked the original work, and I really liked “Umney’s Last Case,” which appears in the titular tome Nightmares & Dreamscapes.

Clyde Umney, played here by William H. Macy, whom I’ve always enjoyed, is a private investigator in 1940-something LA. Clyde is cut from the same cloth as guys like Sam Spade. He gets all the dames and fights all the bad guys. Every day is an adventure, a case waiting to be solved. At the very beginning of the story — and the episode — Clyde thinks that the day is so perfect it ought to have the registered trademark symbol stamped on it somewhere. And that’s what his whole life is like.

But as he heads to his office, things start to sour. George and Gloria Demmick, his noisy neighbors, and their yapping mutt, Buster, are curiously silent. Then, when he gets to his building, Vernon the elevator operator announces he’s retiring. This sets Umney off; he tells Vernon he’s not allowed to go anywhere, that he’s supposed to be operating the elevator, well… forever. Now, by this point teleplay scribe April Smith has taken several liberties… big ones… with the story. But I was still with her.

The opening sequence, which lays on the atmosphere with an extremely heavy hand, made me chuckle. Nonetheless, I was willing to give it a fair shot. So when Clyde enters his office and finds his secretary has left, leaving him only a nasty letter, I hardly even noticed that she cut out the scene with the painters… or the way she made the revelation that the building’s owner, Sam Landry, was coming sound so expositional on Vernon’s lips as opposed to the natural dialogue in the story. I still thought it was going to be okay.

Sure, it felt like we’d rushed through a whole lot in a short period of time. I was surprised we’d reached the point in the story where Umney and Landry meet face-to-face already. We still had almost half an hour left. I was a bit befuddled, wondering how they were going to pull it off with the rest of the remaining time. Unfortunately, I found out.

Nightmares & Dreamscapes Umney review

Apparently, April Smith saw King’s original short story as just a rough suggestion of what the episode should be about. Because I’m not talking about small deviations. This wasn’t changing Bev Rogan to Bev Grogan. This goes from Bev Rogan to Nanny, the Incredible Dancing Goat.

I am not a fan of reviews that spoil endings and give things away. I avoid doing that as much as possible when I write a review. But I have to do it here… because hopefully I’ll be able to save at least one person from watching this episode.

Once Clyde’s world starts slipping further and further down the scale of normal, he meets up with Samuel D. Landry – owner of the Fulwider building… and creator of the world. That’s right. Like a lot of King’s characters, Landry is a writer, and he’s written Clyde and Clyde’s whole world as part of his successful series of mystery novels. And he’s decided he doesn’t like his life anymore, he wants Clyde’s. Clyde’s life is perfect. Ms. Smith managed to get that part right, at least.

But while King has Landry’s life truly tragic (his son cracked his head, got a blood transfusion, and contracted AIDS, dying in horrible agony, after which his wife committed suicide while he retreated into the safety of his writing… oh, and then he got the shingles), Smith minimalizes everything. His son drowned during a pool party while all the parents were idiotically ignoring the children and watching a basketball game, and now Landry and his wife can’t communicate. Yeah, she wishes Umney were there because he’d know what to say and do and not just retreat into his make-believe world. So, Sam decides to give her what she wants… and get himself out of the hotseat at the same time!

This turns Landry himself into at best, an incredibly naïve and inept father and husband and at worst, a neglectful and petty little man. And Mrs. Landry is changed from a mother who lost her son to a terrible disease, her husband to his own world, and her self to despair into a shallow, petty schoolgirl with a crush on her superhero when Umney materializes in her pool. She goes shopping for new clothes for their “second honeymoon.” Oh, and then there’s the addition of the sexy young pool girl (aka Umney’s secretary, whom we’re supposed to believe Landry had some sort of secret lust for) whom Clyde chases around the pool, thus unraveling Mrs. Landry’s dream world and sending her swan-diving off a building. No, I’m not kidding.

William H Macy Nightmares & Dreamscapes Umney reviewAt this point bumbling Landry, who has proved he’s just as inept and retarded in Umney’s world as his own, realizes what he’s done. Meanwhile Umney, with sex kitten pool girl by his side of course, tries to teach himself how to write in order to get back to his life and get his revenge.

Now, some of these changes I can understand… changing the way the son died, for instance… contracting AIDS from a blood transfusion is pretty unheard of in this day and age. But making the shift from a death that was completely random, a terrible accident, to one that was sort of an accident, but a completely avoidable one, was a very poor choice. It would have made more sense if the boy had caught some other uncommon but horrible disease. As it is, during the scene where the son drowns, I was staring in disbelief as a room full of adults completely ignores a pool full of young children – going so far as to have the sliding glass door between them completely closed so the pesky kids don’t splash any water onto the nice furniture. I don’t even have kids, and that just seemed like a stupid idea.

Now, I know some people are going to argue , “But, Morgan, sometimes when you adapt for the screen, certain changes must be made…” I know, I know. But look… she cut out Peoria! Peoria, who King’s version of Landry says is the whole key to him getting into Umney’s world and works vice-versa once Clyde is stranded in Sam’s miserable existence.

I could go on all night, really, about how much this adaptation deviated and how poorly the deviations served the story. It seems pretty clear that Ms. Smith didn’t feel it at all necessary to even remain faithful to the core message of the story but instead believed she had something eminently more important to convey. At least Rob Bowman, the director of both this episode and the upcoming “The Fifth Quarter,” made this trash look good. And the actors turned out a good performance.

But even William H. Macy couldn’t turn Smith’s sow’s ear into a silk purse. Which is sad. Because the installment had so much else going for it. Trust me… skip it. Read the story. It’s ten times better. Ten times ten times better. In fact, I’m look forward to drinking this adaptation out of my memory.

2 out of 5

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Jon Condit