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Marvin's Room

EntertainmentMoviesFamilyRobert De NiroDiane KeatonHume Cronyn

Wednesday December 18, 1996

     There is a core of substance in "Marvin's Room," and persuasive acting to back it up. Which makes it a special pity that the filmmakers didn't trust viewers to have the necessary intelligence to figure that out for themselves.
     Instead of clarity and restraint, Jerry Zaks, a respected theater director in his film debut, has chosen to emphasize the piece's gimmicky cornball humor. And instead of respecting the audience's sensitivity, the film uses an egregiously syrupy score by Rachel Portman to cue every emotional response like a sitcom laugh track. As a result the film's actors have to fight against the sentimental thrust of "Marvin's Room" just as much as characters they play fight against one another.
     It's a tribute to how good the film's trio of stars is that they force the film to be more natural and honest than it wants to be on its own. Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep relish playing off each other as Bessie and Lee, sisters who have not been in contact for 20 years, and Leonardo DiCaprio, after a mannered start, does equally well as Lee's sullen teenage son Hank.
     One reason the actors do so well is that the late Scott McPherson's script, based on his admired play, revolves around a pair of meaty themes. The first and most apparent is family hatreds, how the anger you feel toward close relatives--parents, brothers, sisters, whatever--can torment and burn like no other anger on Earth.
     The second strain is more slow in developing, but more lasting: the benefits of being a caregiver, what the play calls "the gift of giving love." McPherson, who died of complications of AIDS in 1992, was very specific in interviews about relating this theme to the ongoing epidemic, and its notion that people are fortunate to have the opportunity to give love even if it's not reciprocated is a powerful one.
     Though he's not visible in the play, the film presents us with a flesh-and-blood Marvin (Hume Cronyn). He's the barely there paterfamilias of a Florida family, bedridden and dying for 20 years, "taking it slow," daughter Bessie notes mordantly, "so I don't miss anything."
     For all those years Bessie has looked after her father and her Aunt Ruth (a misused Gwen Verdon), a ditsy aunt who is too scatterbrained to do anything but watch soap operas. But now Bessie has been diagnosed with leukemia, and her best hope of treatment lies in a bone marrow transplant from one of three possible donors: her sister and her two nephews.
     Always angry and on edge, with the sensitivity and compassion of a post, Lee is a hard case who fled Florida when her father had his stroke. Now a single mother living in Ohio and hoping to get her life together via a degree in cosmetology, Lee's idea of quality parenting is yelling, "I said, 'Stop it,' " so it's no shock she's having trouble with her eldest son.
     Trouble is perhaps too mild a word for what's going on with Hank. Age 17, he's burned the family house down and is now a resident of a state mental hospital. Hank has inherited his mother's mulish sullenness and though he agrees to accompany her and his brother Charlie (Hal Scardino) to Florida, he refuses to commit to having his bone marrow tested.
     Given this as a backdrop, it's to be expected that toes get stepped on at the reunion, starting with Bessie's greeting of her estranged sister: "Look at you. . . . Are you that old?" Family emotions, as someone says, are like a big bowl of fishhooks, difficult to grasp individually.
     Though comedy is an intrinsic part of the play, director Zaks has not found a way to translate it effectively on screen. All the characters inserted for comic variety--from Verdon to Robert De Niro's Dr. Wally and his manic brother Bob, played by Dan Hedaya--are more than awkward, they're irritating because they get in the way of the film's main satisfaction.
     That would be enjoying the ensemble acting as the newly reunited family comes to grips with one another. Playing the frumpy, uncertain Bess, Keaton is enormously touching, and Streep must have had great fun with the bitch on wheels part of Lee. As for DiCaprio, who slides a little too easily into the morose Hank's shoes, he too gets more real as the film goes on.
     Despite the quality of the performances, "Marvin's Room" remains a mixed bag. It is too stagy too often, and there is that weakness for the obvious, like using a drive by the ocean to symbolize zest for life.

Marvin's Room, 1996. PG-13, for thematic elements and brief language. A Scott Rudin/Tribeca production, released by Miramax Films. Director Jerry Zaks. Producers Scott Rudin, Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro. Executive producers Tod Scott Brody, Lori Steinberg. Screenplay by Scott McPherson, based on his play. Cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski. Editor Jim Clark. Costumes Julie Weiss. Music Rachel Portman. Production design David Gropman. Art director Peter Rogness. Set designer Tracey Doyle. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. Meryl Streep as Lee. Leonardo DiCaprio as Hank. Diane Keaton as Bessie. Robert De Niro as Dr. Wally. Hume Cronyn as Marvin.

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