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 personas 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 Chicago’s 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, such as caring for others and the strength of family bonds.
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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 also is about rival siblings and their different attitudes 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) is a sensitive, middle-aged woman who lives in Orlando, Fla., 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 other 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 the sisters chose radically divergent paths. Bessie went 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 a 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 nut house, to show we’ve got a sense of humor about it.”
The whole 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 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 character, 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.
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 bigscreen as an extension of 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 brilliant performances. Part of the joy derives from watching how the two thesps, who have never acted together before, use different techniques that ultimately complement 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 closeup 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 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.