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Marvin's Room Explores the Ties That Bind
by Gary Johnson

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The official Web site for Marvin's Room

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]
Television is filled with disease-of-the-week made-for-TV movies, but Hollywood has usually steered clear of this terrain. However, Marvin's Room finds leukemia taking center stage as the debilitating disease of the moment.

Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep in Marvin's Room

(©1996 Miramax)

Television producers could learn from this movie; television usually approaches illnesses from one of two vantage points: either as an opportunity for sleazy exploitation or as a reverent, inspiring (i.e. superficial and phony) picture of human dignity. Director Jerry Zaks takes a different approach and shows the people behind the illness, letting the drama grow from their relationships, and throwing in some (thankfully) relieving doses of black comedy.

Marvin's Room tells the story of a family destroyed by illness. Diane Keaton, as the older sister Bessie, gave up her life aspirations to stay at home and care for her bedridden father (Hume Cronyn), while her sister Lee (Meryl Streep) left home to pursue her own life. But now Bessie discovers she also has leukemia, so the family caregiver now needs help of her own. And who can she turn to? Lee has a dysfunctional family, with a resentful older son (Leonardo DiCaprio) not averse to setting house fires. "Hank is not something I can control," she says, so she barks orders at him constantly while his anger grows. Bessie hasn't seen or spoken to Lee (or even received a Christmas card) in over 17 years. But she has nowhere else to turn. So Lee, in a rare moment of courage for her, bundles her own unruly family into the station wagon and takes off to help Bessie in Florida.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Hank in Marvin's Room

(©1996 Miramax)

The movie works best in the first half, when director Zaks allows us to see the absurdities inherent in the situations. For example, Aunt Ruth (Gwen Verdon) has an illness of her own that causes her to experience severe pain. To alleviate the pain, she wears an electronic device that can deliver electric shocks to her brain. When she experiences pain, she simply turns a dial on her belt and the pain goes away--however, the garage door also opens. When Lee and her sons arrive in Florida, Aunt Ruth opens her arms wide for hugs, but each hug makes her scream in pain, turn the dial to kill the pain, and then up goes the garage door. It's a wonderfully absurd scene.

In addition, in a supporting role, Robert De Niro takes a comically confused turn as Dr. Wally. As he bumbles around his office, laying out an ominous set of vials for drawing blood, Bessie gets nervous herself and considers coming back on another day.

Robert De Niro as Dr. Wally in Marvin's Room

(©1996 Miramax)

However, the further we get into the movie, the more serious (and ordinary) the movie becomes. Bessie must find some way to convince Lee to move to Florida and become the family caregiver. And Bessie needs a bone narrow donor herself, while Lee's older son looks like the ideal donor. But he's filled with anger, and Lee doesn't help the situation with her constant bickering. As the comedy starts to fade away, the movie becomes more and more like a made-for-TV drama.

But the movie never becomes maudlin, thanks to the terrific cast, which always puts the focus on the well-defined characterizations. Streep is completely convincing as a lower-middle class mother with questionable taste in men and a wardrobe courtesy of Wal-Mart. And Leonardo DiCaprio is excellent as Lee's angry teenage son, in a role that must almost be second nature to him by now. Diane Keaton looks nothing like Annie Hall. She inhabits her role with an intensity equal to Streep. And Gwen Verdon, as spaced-out Aunt Ruth, is wonderfully bemused throughout.

A Miramax Films Presentation


LeeMeryl Streep
BessieDiane Keaton
HankLeonardo DiCaprio
Dr. WallyRobert De Niro
MarvinHume Cronyn
Aunt RuthGwen Verdon
CharlieHal Scardino
BobDan Hedaya
Directed byJerry Zaks
Produced byScott Rudin
Jane Rosenthal
Robert De Niro
Fiona Finlay
Screenplay byScott McPherson, based on his own play
Director of PhotographyPiotr Sobocinski
Production DesignerDavid Gropman
Costume DesignerJulie Weiss
EditorJim Clark
MusicRachel Portman
Co-producersDavid Wisnievitz
Bonnie Palef
Adam Schroeder
Executive producersTod Scott Brody
Lori Steinberg
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