Gannett News Service, 12-18-1996, pp arc.
`Marvin's Room' -- a four-star gem...
By MARSHALL FINE
Gannett Suburban Newspapers
Movies about illness are, by nature, manipulative -- but the best of them let you forget that your
emotions are being played like a piano. You simply give yourself over to the human power of the
characters and their story.
The amazing thing about ``Marvin's Room' is writer Scott McPherson' s ability to take tough, tragic
material and make it both wrenching and outrageously, darkly funny. If anything, the late
McPherson's screenplay is even funnier than the stage version.
Credit for that, however, must be shared with director Jerry Zaks (a stage veteran making his film
debut) and an incredible cast that puts stardom aside to meld into a seamless ensemble. They have
turned the play into a wonderfully life-affirming story about the fragility and durability of family bonds.
At the center of the story is Bessie (Diane Keaton), who lives in Florida with her bed-ridden father,
Marvin, and her ailing Aunt Ruth. She's devoted herself to their care since Marvin's debilitating
stroke years before. He is, in her words, dying slowly ``so we won't miss a minute of it.''
Feeling run down and assuming she's merely suffering a vitamin deficiency, she instead winds up at
the mercy of the compassionate but harried Dr. Wally (Robert De Niro), who finally admits that she,
in fact, has leukemia. Her only hope is a bone-marrow transplant from a close family member.
Which is where Lee (Meryl Streep), Bessie's sister, comes in. Estranged from Bessie and Marvin
for more than 20 years, she lives with her two sons (one of whom is institutionalized for setting fires)
and is just about finished with beauty school. When Bessie calls, she packs sons Hank (Leonardo
DiCaprio) and Charlie (Hal Scardino) into the car and drives to Florida to be tested for donor
The reunion, initially, is an uneasy one. Bessie is too nice to voice her resentments for the years Lee
has abandoned her to care for their father and aunt. But Lee feels such guilt at her long-term
disconnection that she always assumes an accusing subtext to Bessie's conversation. Meanwhile, Lee
is also struggling with her tortured relationship with the wild Hank, who strikes an instant rapport
The tension and guilt are mixed with Bessie's rising fear about the possibility of her own impending
death, which is mixed with her worries about what will happen to Marvin and Ruth -- and whether
Lee will be willing to assume some form of responsibility. Yet it is all leavened with cuttingly dark
humor, tied to the mundane details of everyday life and the cultural differences between Bessie and
her long-lost family.
Filmed in concise, unfussy fashion by Zaks, ``Marvin's Room'' benefits from bone-deep
performances by all the principals: Keaton as the self- sacrificing Bessie and Streep as the selfish,
trashy Lee, struggling with the demands of being a better version of herself. DiCaprio sizzles as the
anxious, fiery Hank, while De Niro has a wonderful deadpan quality as the not-quite-together Dr.
``Marvin's Room'' is funny and thoughtful, a deeply moving film whose laughs are always surprising
and whose tears are fully earned.
Rated PG-13, profanity, adult themes.
MARVIN'S ROOM (PG-13, profanity, adult themes) Four Stars (Excellent) A terrific adaptation of
the off-Broadway hit, about a family that reunites when one member gets leukemia. Funny and
touching, it's a movie that earns both its laughter and its tears. Starring Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep,
Leonardo DiCaprio. Directed by Jerry Zaks. Miramax Films. 98 minutes.
(Marshall Fine covers entertainment for the Gannett Suburban Newspapers and Gannett News
A collection of Marshall Fine's film reviews is available in Westchester Today, Gannett Suburban
Newspapers' World Wide Web site, at