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The Ultimate Family Room

It may come as a surprise to some that leukemia, senility and bitterness between parent and child are the stuff of comedy. But therein lies the unlikely miracle of Marvin's Room, a compelling drama about a shattered family trying to pick up the pieces that draws much of its strength from the comic potential in the worst kind of tribulation.

The heart and soul of this balancing act belong to playwright Scott McPherson, who had time to complete the first draft of a screenplay based on his 1991 off-Broadway hit before dying from AIDS complications at age 33. Fellow dramatist John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation) finished the job, and their collaboration is a rare example of first-rate film writing in the age of rampant dumbing-down. Here's that blessed thing: A movie for thinking grownups.

What a joy to see a cast worthy of McPherson's words--right down to the bit parts. Any time producers can land Robert De Niro for the minor role of a disorganized doctor who can't help sitting on his tourniquet, the movie must be something special. Of course, it helps that De Niro is one of the producers.

The principals are just as high-powered. Meryl Streep, who seems to collect Oscar nominations like so many bottles of wine, was first attracted to the play's older sister, Bessie, a self-sacrificial spinster who has given her life to the care, feeding and medication of her bedridden father, Marvin (Hume Cronyn), and her batty Aunt Ruth (Gwen Verdon). In time, though, that part went to Diane Keaton. La Streep opted for Bessie's opposite, the brassy, chain-smoking Lee, who's squandered the years on vain dreams and vanishing men. In the process, she's also turned her teenage son, Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio), into a gravely disturbed rebel who's committed to a mental hospital after he burns down their house.

Pretty funny stuff, huh?
Well, yes and no. Veteran New York stage director Jerry Zaks, making his movie debut here, traverses light and darkness with great skill. Room's crucial conflicts erupt when the selfless Bessie is diagnosed with leukemia, and her long-estranged sister reluctantly treks from Ohio down to Bessie's ramshackle house in Florida, with two unhappy kids in tow, to at least put up the appearance of helping out. Maybe Lee or one of her sons will be a match for a critical bone-marrow transplant.

Two decades earlier, short-tempered, shortsighted Lee ran away from the horror of sick parents and family responsibility, but only now does she begin to glimpse that she's also abandoned her own feelings. Hearing her father shout and gurgle in his bed, she is stricken with panic and revulsion. We are struck by the depth of her self-absorption--and by Streep's boldness in taking on such a thankless part in the first place. But neither Zaks nor the late Mr. McPherson allows us to stew in those juices too long: Before we know it, they've disarmed us with the vision of the old man furtively sucking the ink right off a pair of Yahtzee dice.

This comic/tragic tug-of-war extends to the relationship between nurturing Aunt Bessie and raw-nerved young Hank. He's long had the goods on Mom, of course. It's not until Bessie softens his shell that he begins to understand his mother and himself. Young DiCaprio is nothing short of astonishing. Meanwhile, Lee painfully finds a lost part of herself in her dying sister, and the family finally begins to heal as it walks into the twilight. Streep and Keaton never miss a beat.

The tear-jerking elements of Marvin's Room--this is a two-hanky job--are never cheap. The laughs come, unexpectedly, from an old lady dressing up to watch a wedding on TV, the clumsiness of a doctor delivering fatal news, the dark gulf between sisters. Sorrow and mirth and redemption flow together here as one stream of life; I can't think of a higher recommendation.

--Gallo

Marvin's Room.
Screenplay by Scott McPherson, from his play. Directed by Jerry Zaks. With Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro.

 
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