A Film Review by James Berardinelli
For every happy, "traditional" family, there's one that fits under the broad envelope of "dysfunctional." In general, motion pictures are made about those in the latter category rather than the former, because the dramatic potential is better. Marvin's Room, based on the play of the same name, is one of those movies that delves beneath the thinly-applied varnish covering the gaping holes in a series of sundered family relationships. Like Andre Techine's Ma Saison Preferee, what begins as an apparently simple tale of sibling interaction reveals a complex web of pain, guilt, and uncertainty.
Scott McPherson's play, Marvin's Room, debuted on stage in New York six years ago. McPherson went on to write the film's screenplay before succumbing to AIDS-related complications. And, while the narrative is not intended to be biographical, McPherson nevertheless drew heavily on his own experiences while writing it. Director Jerry Zaks widens the canvas here, expanding the film's locales to a Florida beach and Disneyworld while continuing to maintain the level of emotional intensity that makes this a memorable story.
Bessie (Diane Keaton) and Lee (Meryl Streep) are sisters who have gone their separate ways. Twenty years ago, a bitter quarrel over family responsibilities split them, and they haven't spoken since. Bessie gave up her life to return to the family home in Florida and play the role of caregiver for her father, Marvin (Hume Cronyn), who had a stroke, and her bedridden aunt (Gwen Verdon). Lee, unwilling to accept such a personal sacrifice, went her own way. She had two children, Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Charlie (Hal Scardino), that she has struggled to raise on her own.
Now, Bessie has been diagnosed with leukemia, and her survival may depend on a bone marrow transplant from a family member. This leads to an awkward and inevitable reunion between the sisters. Lee and her two sons travel to Florida -- Lee to revisit the past; Charlie and Hank to meet the aunt they never knew. But all is not well between these characters. Hank's rebelliousness, which landed him in a mental institution, threatens to explode into the open, and the tension between Lee and Bessie is palpable.
Marvin's Room deals with a number of potentially-depressing subjects: mental illness, child abuse, repressed memories, buried guilt, and terminal cancer. In many ways, however, this film is not a downer, because it encourages us to look at the good things in a day-to-day existence. Marvin's Room is about three people in damaged relationships coming together. Nothing is really resolved by the time we reach the somewhat abrupt ending, but the seeds of hope have been planted.
The focus of Marvin's Room is coming to terms with the consequences of one's actions and using the healing power of love to cleanse festering wounds. Lee pursued her "dreams" and ended up with a broken life. Selfishness turned her into a bitter, resentful person; guilt has gnawed at her soul for twenty years. Bessie, on the other hand, who has sacrificed everything to care for her aunt and father, is fulfilled and content. In her own words, "I've had such love in my life. I look back, and I've had such love." In a perverse way, Lee holds that against her. However, before Lee can begin to confront her own demons, she must resolve her unclear feelings about her sister, her children, and her father.
Most of Marvin's Room is dialogue, as one might expect from a play-to-film script. There are a few missteps. For example, Aunt Ruth is devised primarily as a source of comic relief, but there are times when the humor feels forced and artificial. There are also a few occasions when character interaction falls into over-familiar patterns. Some of the early scenes between Lee and Bessie unfold in a too-predictable fashion.
Yet, even on those occasions when the screenplay falters, the actors are there to take up the slack. Marvin's Room's most valuable asset is a trio of superlative performances: Meryl Streep as the conflicted Lee, Diane Keaton as the saintly-but-frightened Bessie, and Leonardo DiCaprio as the lonely, rebellious Hank. It's impossible to decide who does the best job here. Each has their own particular series of moments, and, by the time the final credits roll, Lee, Bessie, and Hank have been developed into fully-rounded characters. What's more, the often-subtle changes to each of their personalities have been effectively realized by the actors.
Robert DeNiro, cast against type, is seen in a rare supporting performance as a well-meaning doctor. Hume Cronyn spends most of his time unconscious or mumbling as the title character, but he does have a pair of magical scenes, one of which occurs at the end. Hal Scardino is fine as Charlie, and Gwen Verdon enables us to feel for a character whose primary purpose is to make us laugh when there are so many reasons to cry.
It takes a lot of thought and reflection to untangle all the complex relationships revealed throughout Marvin's Room. In the end, however, the image that lingers is one of promise. Sure, there's a tragedy here, but, ultimately, I think the tone of Marvin's Room is far more positive than the subject matter might lead anyone to believe.