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
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.