Marvin's Room

on February 08, 1997 by Cathy Thompson-Georges
The disease movie has been a staple since Hollywood first realized that wet hankies mean big boxoffice. Although the genre allows actors to display chops galore, the danger has always been that the audience will be drowned in a sea of sugar water.
   Although "Marvin's Room," adapted by Scott McPherson from his play, does tug pretty hard on the more obvious heartstrings, it avoids bathos by virtue of a powerful cast and a slightly offbeat sensibility. When the film opens, Bessie (Diane Keaton) for years has been caring for her bedridden father (Hume Cronyn) and dotty aunt Ruth (Gwen Verdon). When she herself falls ill, Bessie must call upon her estranged sister Lee (Meryl Streep) and Lee's troubled son Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio) for help--opening old wounds and forcing both sisters to confront the difficult choices they've made in their lives.
   "Marvin's Room" is a sudser for sure, with a plot contrived to give everyone his or her Big Emotional Moment. But the situation is a plausible one, and Keaton and Streep are such powerhouses that moviegoers aren't likely to mind the sappier flourishes. It's a pleasure to see Streep play brassy and aggressive after so many wistful roles; not surprisingly, her Lee is utterly convincing, although a trailer-trash harridan is the last image one would associate with the actress. Keaton has a juicy role as the ever-cheerful sister stretched to the breaking point, and DiCaprio excels at the very type of troubled adolescent he portrays here.
   Although this is an adapted play being helmed by a theatre director with no prior cinematic experience, "Marvin's Room" never feels stagebound or static; a scene in which Bessie and Hank do a little family bonding on the beach is particularly well handled. The theatre version of "Marvin's Room" was applauded for its humor, but that's an element lacking in the bigscreen iteration. Still, audiences seeking a fine character drama are likely to overlook a few pat moments and a certain basic predictability. And they'll hit the hankies. Starring Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio. Directed by Jerry Zaks. Written by Scott McPherson. Produced by Scott Rudin, Jane Rosenthal and Robert De Niro. A Miramax release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief language. Running time: 97 min. Opens 12/18 NY/LA; expands 1/10 to top 10 markets, 1/24 to top 60 markets, & 1/31 nationally
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