The Dallas Morning News

 

Marvin's Room
Stars cast warm light over dark subject

 

Marvin's Room is a daring little movie with a big-name cast.

It's daring because in the wake of action cash cows Twister, Independence Day and Mission: Impossible, this affecting, if skewed, adaptation of Scott McPherson's funny, wise, moving play explores such special- effects-free subjects as the meaning of family, the power of love and the value of caring for others.

Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton play long-estranged sisters - brassy, chain-smoking Lee (Ms. Streep) and kindhearted Bessie (Ms. Keaton). While Lee went off to lead her own life, Bessie has spent 20 years caring for their bedridden dad, Marvin (Hume Cronyn), and sweetly confused Aunt Ruth (Broadway dancing great Gwen Verdon).

When Bessie learns she's suffering from leukemia and needs a bone- marrow transplant, she reaches out to family members. Lee loads her sons, rebellious Hank (Romeo and Juliet's Leonardo DiCaprio) and bookish Charlie (The Indian in the Cupboard's Hal Scardino), into the car and heads south.

The sisterly reunion falls short of warm and fuzzy: "Oh, my goodness, " Bessie says. "Look at you... Look at you. Are you that old?" While they fence through love and hate, Bessie and Hank hit it off, bonding in a surfside driving scene reminiscent - maybe too reminiscent - of Jack Nicholson and Shirley MacLaine's wild ride in Terms of Endearment.

In its stage debut in 1991, Marvin's Room deeply affected audiences. The New York Times' Frank Rich said the play made him want to gather up those he loved and take them to see it "so they, too, could bask in its bouncing, healing light."

On screen, directed by four-Tony winner Jerry Zaks in his feature debut, it loses some of that power and light. Its humor seems more cornball than black, its score overly sentimental and its scathing take on the medical profession much muted. But ensemble acting by megastars takes a dark subject and makes it glow.

Ms. Keaton gleams as dowdy Bessie. The actress does some of her best work with Ms. Streep and the gifted Mr. DiCaprio, adding to his repertoire of tortured youth. You won't forget her beatific face as she entertains stroke-impaired Marvin by shining a mirror on the wall.

It's fun to see Ms. Streep doing a smoking Bette Davis - she hasn' t been this trashy since Silkwood - and to watch Robert De Niro playing a funnny, bumbling M.D.

Mr. McPherson's play is more than a little autobiographical. As a boy in Ohio, he had a grandfather with Parkinson's disease, a sickly Aunt Ruth and an Aunt Bessie who cared for them all. He said he wasn' t creative enough to change their names.

Later, he turned caretaker himself, tending his lover who succumbed to AIDS. Along the way, Mr. McPherson, who died of the same disease in 1992, learned firsthand about "the power of giving yourself to someone else."

If Marvin's Room has a soap--opera aspect, so does life. This is good writing. If the subject is grim, Mr. McPherson's lively take and some radiant turns make for warm entertainment.

Marvin's Room ***

 

Thanks a lot to Treggy !

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