February 28, 1997 in Seven

Acting Brilliance Illuminates ‘Marvin’s Room’

Carrie Rickey Philadelphia Inquirer
 

No matter that you’re weeping buckets (and you will). Tears cannot tarnish the sterling performances in “Marvin’s Room,” a sandwich-generation stressfest relieved by truly magical acting.

Lee and Bessie are sisters. That they are played by Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton tells you something about a gene pool that can produce a hard-bitten beautician who shrugs off new burdens and the cuddly caregiver whose arms are always open.

The two, who have avoided contact for 20 years, have been busy doing the responsibility juggle.

Lee, who has moved from her home in Florida to Ohio, is a single mom with two sons, Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio), the most magnetic brooding juvenile since James Dean, and Charlie (Hal Scardino), a bookworm. Back in Florida, for the past two decades Bessie has assumed the care of her ailing father, Marvin (Hume Cronyn), and Aunt Ruth (Gwen Verdon).

As Bessie says in the wry voice-over that firmly establishes the film’s mix of moist emotionalism and dry humor, “Dad’s been dying for 20 years, so I don’t miss a thing.” When Bessie is diagnosed with leukemia, the question mark that hovers over the movie is, who will care for the caregiver? Surely not Lee, who can barely care for herself and her kids. But if not Lee, who else?

Based on the play by the late Scott McPherson, whose observations were rooted in his own experience of having AIDS while taking care of sicker HIV-positive friends, “Marvin’s Room” is a melodrama more substantial than soapsuds and a comedy less funny than it struggles to be.

It’s hard to get a fix on a movie in which the tentative direction, by accomplished stage artist Jerry Zaks, freezes emotions pictorially, as in a series of painted tableaux, rather than cinematically.

“Marvin’s Room” is not a moving picture in the active sense, but it is one in the emotional sense. Credit Streep, DiCaprio and, above all, Keaton for making it so.

Streep’s Lee is abrasive, like a jagged chunk of flint rubbing up against everyone. She strikes sparks when she’s next to Hank but is effectively cushioned by the forgiving Bessie, whom Keaton plays with transcendent gentleness.

And DiCaprio, he of the cupid mouth and demon’s eyes, combines the angelic and diabolical in his portrait of the troubled Hank, a young man so selfish and resentful that initially he refuses to be tested as a potential bone marrow donor to his aunt.

For all its grace notes, “Marvin’s Room” has more than its share of blunders, most of them committed in the name of opening up the stagebound scenario. Nothing, not the excursions to the beach or to Disney World, can hide the fact that this is a three-person character study. With performances like these, who needs a theme park ride?

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. “Marvin’s Room” Locations: North Division Cinemas Credits: Directed by Jerry Zaks, starring Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, Leonard DiCaprio, Robert De Niro Running time: 1:38 Rating: PG-13

2. Other views Here’s what other critics say about “Marvin’s Room:” Janet Maslin/New York Times: Powerhouse casting and a heartbreaking history make the screen version of “Marvin’s Room” more memorable than it otherwise would be. Chris Hewitt/St. Paul Pioneer Press: The movie veers close to sentimentality, but it manages to avoid it with quirky characterizations, a handful of belly laughs and a message about giving love, getting love and what family members owe each other. Eric Brace/The Washington Post: Something has to be said about the soundtrack. It’s all plinky-plink pianos and mewing oboes, trying to jerk those tears a little too hard. No, a lot too hard.

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. “Marvin’s Room” Locations: North Division Cinemas Credits: Directed by Jerry Zaks, starring Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, Leonard DiCaprio, Robert De Niro Running time: 1:38 Rating: PG-13

2. Other views Here’s what other critics say about “Marvin’s Room:” Janet Maslin/New York Times: Powerhouse casting and a heartbreaking history make the screen version of “Marvin’s Room” more memorable than it otherwise would be. Chris Hewitt/St. Paul Pioneer Press: The movie veers close to sentimentality, but it manages to avoid it with quirky characterizations, a handful of belly laughs and a message about giving love, getting love and what family members owe each other. Eric Brace/The Washington Post: Something has to be said about the soundtrack. It’s all plinky-plink pianos and mewing oboes, trying to jerk those tears a little too hard. No, a lot too hard.

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