Every actor in this movie leaves his/her own personality at the door to become the character.
It is often said that a Broadway play is "opened up" when transferred to the big screen, but "Marvin's Room," has so much going on among the principal characters, that director Jerry Zaks keeps the action where it belongs: in the interior of a small house where a family drama is played out at the bedside of a dying father. This was not a play in need of expansion.
The potential for distraction is enormous: Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, and Leonardo DiCaprio. Three major stars in a movie about forgiveness and self-sacrifice could well spell ego trouble and/or melodrama. Throw in Robert DeNiro, Hume Cronyn, and Gwen Verdon as supporting players and you might expect the bouncing ball to follow each of them by turns. That never happens.
The film script, based on Scot McPherson's fine play, never becomes sentimental, never wavers from its central theme of the reconciliation of two sisters who have not spoken in two decades. By the time they meet by their father's bedside in Florida, we know Lee (Meryl Streep) and Bessie (Diane Keaton).
Lee is a tough-talking hairdresser, a single mother of two boys who fled the scene of her father's sickness all that while ago. Marvin's (Hume Cronyn) needs, and those of his not-all-there sister Ruth (Gwen Verdon), are tended year after year without complaint by Bessie. Bessie ministers not from duty and guilt, but from compassion.
When Bessie is diagnosed with lukemia, Lee comes home with a survivor's chip on her shoulder and a surly son named Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio). Her fear of losing her freedom is magnified by the sight of her sister who is both sick and worn down in her twentieth year of caring for their father, who lies in bed unable to focus or speak. Lee is terrified of pill bottles, syringes, medical hot lines, and duty.
If this sounds like a depressing study in theatrical confession, it isn't. Every actor in this movie leaves his/her own personalty at the door to become the character. Leonardo DiCaprio is heartbreaking as the lost Hank, never more so than when his aunt breaks through to him. Disappearing entirely into her role, Meryl Streep just is the single mother who had to be tough to survive.
Streep and Diane Keaton manage to create two small town women with absolute credibility. As fine as Meryl Streep is, it is Diane Keaton who pulls off the improbable. Is it possible to live a life of self-sacrifice without the stain of the martyr? You'll see it here.
And you will also see a story unfold not in theatrics, but in detail. The smallest gestures, each so revealing of Bessie, Lee, Hank and Ruth. They manage to convey the terrible price that prolonged sickness exacts on a family while turning their differences with each other into small victories. The movie itself is a small triumph.
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