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Newsday, 12-18-1996, pp B03.

 

Actors Crowd `Marvin's Room' / Streep, Keaton and DiCaprio outshine script

 

Actors Crowd `Marvin's Room' / Streep, Keaton and DiCaprio

outshine script

 

* * 1/2 MARVIN'S ROOM. (PG-13) Jerry Zaks' adaptation of the

late Scott McPherson's 1991 Off-Broadway play, about estranged sisters

reunited by family tragedy, features strong performances from Diane

Keaton, Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio, but the cast is a little too

big for the play's britches. With Robert De Niro, Gwen Verdon. 1:38

(adult themes, profanity). Sony Theatres Lincoln Square, Broadway and

68th Street, Manhattan.

HUME CRONYN, who has the title role in Jerry Zaks' "Marvin's

Room," doesn't utter a word throughout the film. Meryl Streep, whose 10

Oscar nominations are for performances played from the inside out,

portrays a vain ogre. Diane Keaton, a master of the bewildered modern

woman, plays a simple, old-fashioned spinster who knows exactly who she

is and what her responsibilities are.

These unexpected casting assignments, plus another edgy turn at

teenage disaffection by Leonardo DiCaprio and an extended cameo by

Robert De Niro, have converted the late Scott McPherson's small 1991

Off-Broadway play into something the screen can barely contain.

The story, about a pair of estranged sisters reunited by one's

terminal illness, remains sharply focused on the issues of caring and

family bonds, and the central performances are dead-on. But no matter

how hard Zaks works to "open it up," with trips to the doctor's office,

the backyard and the beach, "Marvin's Room" is still stage-bound, so

literally true to its source that it's like watching the play through a

microscope.

The ailments that bring sisters Lee (Streep) and Bessie (Keaton)

together are the strokes that left their father (Cronyn) silently

bed-ridden 20 years earlier, and the leukemia now coursing through

Bessie's body. The sisters have been estranged since their father's

first stroke, when Lee, the youngest, left their southern home,

determined not to be held back by family obligations. Bessie stayed

behind, willingly sacrificing her own freedom to care for dad.

It's only when Bessie's life hangs on the prospect of a bone marrow

transplant that she calls Lee in Ohio and asks her to come home, thereby

setting off the family drama. Lee, now divorced, with a fresh diploma in

cosmetology, is no more anxious to tend the sick than she was before.

But she has enough lingering loyalty to answer the medical call, and

brings her two sons along, hoping that one of them will provide a bone

marrow match if she doesn't.

The song Carly Simon wrote and sings over the film's end credits

includes the lyric, "two little sisters gazing at the sea, imagine what

their futures will be. I didn't choose you and you didn't choose me, but

I guess we're from the same family."

We don't get to see young Lee and Bessie gazing at the sea, and

frankly, it's hard to imagine that they're from the same family. How

does one sister end up gentle, self-sacrificing and devoted, and the

other hard, egocentric and disconnected? Certainly, siblings grow up to

embrace different values, but walking out on a bedridden parent, never

to visit him or inquire about him . . . this takes a special kind of

insensitivity, and "Marvin's Room" offers no convincing explanations for

it.

Zaks, a veteran stage director making his feature film debut, got a

terrific performance from Keaton, who, while looking old far beyond her

51 years, is very moving as a woman thriving on the love she's able to

give. And DiCaprio's anger and edginess express an outrage over his

mother's self-centeredness that's sure to heighten our appreciation of

the calm we know will come.

Streep has a riveting presence, and Lee is ultimately the character

compelled to undergo the most overt change. But she can only do so much

with a figure created out of psychological cardboard. De Niro, whose

company produced the film, adds some lightness as Bessie's disorganized

but wise doctor, and Gwen Verdon provides needed comic relief as the

sisters' cheerfully dotty aunt.