Marvin’s Room: Family Melodrama Starring Diane Keaton (in Oscar Turn), Meryl Streep and DiCaprio

The most interesting aspect of Jerry Zaks’ Marvin’s Room, an intimate exploration of familial sacrifice and love, is observing three terrifically gifted performers, Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio, effectively submerge their idiosyncratic talents and persona in an effort to portray ordinary, down-to-earth individuals. Boasting what’s got to be year’s most perfectly cast film, with superlative supporting turns from veterans Gwen Verdon and Hume Cronyn, Miramax should do reasonably well with its modest, small-scale movie, whose message of selflessness and forgiveness aptly fits the spirit of Christmas.

Originally produced by the Chicago Goodman Theatre in l990, and later in New York, Marvin’s Room is a personal play by Scott McPherson, who died of AIDS in l992, at the age of 33. This biographical item is not just background info, as it’s almost impossible to watch the film, which concerns various approaches to love and death, without realizing its particular AIDS message as well as more universal values, like caring for others and the strength of family bond.

Thematically, the narrative bears strong resemblance to Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart (with two instead of three sisters), particularly the Keaton role, and Arthur Miller’s The Price, which is also about rivaling siblings and their different attitude toward familial responsibilities and duties.
Since describing screen families as dysfunctional has become such a cliche, let’s just say that this film’s family is vastly troubled. As the story begins, the chief characters are briefly introduced through cross-cutting. Bessie (Keaton), a sensitive, middle-aged, woman lives in Orlando, taking care of her dying father, Marvin (Cronyn) and eccentric aunt, Ruth (Verdon). Her younger sister, Lee (Streep) is a tough, fiercely independent divorcee, raising two sons: rebellious adolescent Hank (DiCaprio) and quieter brother, Charlie (Hal Scardino), a geek who spends most of his time reading.

The two sisters have not spoken or written to each for 20 years. In fact, they have been so alienated from each other that Hank didn’t even realize he had an aunt. Years back, choosing radically divergent paths, Bessie went back home and sacrificed herself for her bedridden father. A single mother with a bad marriage, Lee went back to school, got a diploma in cosmetology and began a new life as a hairdresser in Ohio.

A reunion of sorts is forced upon the women, when Bessie is diagnosed by Dr. Wally (Robert De Niro) as having leukemia, with her survival dependent on finding a relative whose bone marrow matches her own. In a funny scene, Bessie and Lee rehearse in front of the mirror how they will greet each other but, predictably, their meeting follows a totally different scenario.

The serio-comic tale, which still feels like a play, unfolds as a series of arguments, counter-arguments, and reconciliations. Most of the drama consists of intimate interactional scenes, in which confessions and revelations are made. To describe the relationship between Lee and Hank as generational gap is an understatement. Ever since he set their house on fire and was labeled delinquent, Lee has taken an extremely tough approach with him. Still, both handle their problems with gumption and even drollery. Talking about the mental institution Hank was sent to, Lee says: “We call it the loony bin, or the nuthouse, to show we’ve got a sense of humor about it.”

The film is laced with shards of humor and irony, which proves helpful considering the basically downbeat nature of the material. Though utterly selfless, Bessie tells her doctor, “my father has been dying for 20 years, slowly, so that I won’t miss anything.”

It’s a credit to director Jerry Zaks, who here makes his feature debut, that he minimizes the exteriors and, more importantly, avoids the pitfalls of big emotional confrontational scenes, as is often the case of stage-to-screen transfers. Marvin’s Room is decidedly a film of many small but glorious moments. The inner journey that both sisters undergo, especially Streep’s, is handled delicately, step-by-step, without hysteria–or sappy melodrama. It’s also telling, that the few outdoor scenes, such as Hank taking Bessie for a wild ride on the beach, or the whole family visiting Disney World, feel extraneous to a yarn that is inherently interior.

Helmer Zaks, who staged landmark productions of John Guare’s House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation, knows that his best asset are the actors and he uses the big screen as an extension to the play’s literariness, providing his ensemble a platform to display their wonderful skills.

Truly collaborating, rather than competing (as could be expected), Keaton and Streep render legendary performances. Part of the joy derives from watching how the two thesps, who have never acted together before, use different techniques that ultimately compliment each other. Streep works at her role from the outside in, mastering the details of voice, movement, facial expression. Keaton, in contrast, is an instinctive actress who makes her lines sound more spontaneous. Keaton’s observation (obviously speaking for the author), “I’ve been so lucky to have been able to love someone so much,” and Streep’s lyrical close-up reaction to it, are truly heartbreaking.

Rest of the cast, including back in form Dicaprio, as the troubled teenager who hits it off with his aunt; Cronyn, who spends the entire time in bed; Verdon, as the funny-sad ailing aunt; De Niro, as the whimsical doctor, and Dan Hedaya, in a role that under different circumstances might have gone to Robin Williams, is flawless.

Polish lenser Piotr Sobocinski (Red, Ransom) gives the film a crisp look, with multi-nuanced lighting that underlines the characters’ continuously changing inner states. Other tech credits are good, with special kudos to Julie Weiss’ colorfully authentic costumes, particularly for the leading ladies.