Film Scouts Reviews

"Marvin's Room"

by Henri Béhar

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Scott McPherson's 1991 play, "Marvin's Room", was a high-wire exercise in delicate balance between slapstick and pathos, humor and emotion. You never saw Marvin, but you heard him moaning with pain in his room backstage. You *assumed* he'd had a stroke twenty years ago and never recovered, but you never quite really knew what he was dying from. You could therefore make the jump and encompass all debilitating fatal diseases - read AIDS, which McPherson died of shortly after the play opened.

Jerry Zaks' film, as well as the play, focuses on the living, particularly Marvin's two daughters. The sweet, almost saintly Bessie (Diane Keaton) stayed behind to take care of her father and her soft-brained big-hearted aunt Ruth, played with touching gusto by Gwen Verdon. Lee (Meryl Streep) fled up North, got married, had two children, split from hubby and moved to Ohio with her kids to build a new life as a cosmetician. A bull-headed, hard-boiled woman, Lee has found her match in her troubled son Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio). I mean, he sets the house on fire, and that's just under the main titles.

Bessie finds out she has leukemia; only a bone marrow transplant from a kin, says Dr. Wally (Robert De Niro) *might* save her life. Bessie calls Lee, Lee packs her bags, corrals her sons and off they go. Will Bessie be saved by Lee's, Hank's or his brother's bell? That's almost beside the point. The point is what happens between the two estranged sisters, between Bessie and Hank, between Hank and his mother?

Sounds like a ten-hankie tear-jerker? It ain't. Because McPherson, who wrote the script before he died, has injected in his dialogue a healthy dose of humor and light-hearted absurdity. Dr. Wally is a charming fumbler of a doctor who opens sterilized swab packs with his teeth and his assistant a slow-witted bundle of nerves. (Yet you never wonder why Bessie keeps going back). Aunt Ruth is so totally addicted to soap operas that she'll dress up for the wedding of two of her favorite TV characters. The writing has made room for both fun and fear in each protagonist, to-ing and fro-ing at dizzying speed, sometimes within the same *sentence*.

For the record, this is the first production that was permitted to shoot at DisneyWorld (but "Marvin's Room" was co-financed by Miramax, which is owned by Disney). Director Jerry Zaks makes good use of the premisses - her mouth bleeding, losing conscience, Keaton is picked up by Goofy and carried to Mickey's House. Otherwise, particularly in a confrontation scene between Streep and DiCaprio (shot at the toy store), the ace-marketeer's presence is not exactly discreet.

Too bad the renowned theatre-director, making here his film debut, has not always trusted his material quite as much as he should have. There is no excuse, beside (perhaps legitimate) insecurity, for the overdose of saccharinely "significant" music that more often than not diminishes - I am tempted to say cheapens - the power of a scene. (By contract, if not by law, film composers should be forbidden to exceed a single album per movie).

Particularly when one is blessed with such a cast, obviously well taken care of by the director. What happens between Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio goes beyond just acting: it's alchemy. Diane Keaton manages to defuse the trap of saintliness with lightness of touch and determination - the way she *listens* is impressive and her timing exquisitely awesome: her description of the drowning of the boyfriend that might have been is a piece of acting anthology.

As Ms. Major Attitude, Streep, new hairdo, new accent, new body language, will once again astound you by the boldness of her choices, and her sharpness for revealing details. I'll tell you, this woman is way out there! Leonardo DiCaprio is more than up to the challenge: in one or two instances, he almost runs away with the movie. No mean feat, that.

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