Volume 90, Issue 84

Wednesday, March 05, 1997

Yo's baby


Room for human reality

Marvin's Room
Starring Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Diane Keaton and Robert DeNiro
Directed by Jerry Zaks
At Famous Players 6, 7:10 and 9:20 p.m.

As Aunt Ruth (Gwen Verdon) lives her life vicariously through her favourite soap opera, it becomes obvious what Marvin's Room is not about.

There is no Hollywood melodrama drama here, let alone effects or pizzazz. Marvin's Room is a ridiculously–real, painfully–plain story about a dying, frail father, his two warring daughters and a delinquent grandson.

The grandson is played meticulously by Leonardo DiCaprio – just one member of a stellar cast. In fact, it is this cast, and the lifelike characters they play, which brings this otherwise slow-moving and lacklustre film to life.

DiCaprio (The Basketball Diaries) plays 17-year-old Hank, a youth abused by his father and robbed of familial love. In response, Hank rebels by burning down the family home, sending himself to a mental institution and his mother Lee (Meryl Streep) and brother Charlie (Hal Scardino) to seek refuge in a convent.

Meanwhile, Lee's estranged sister, Bessie (Diane Keaton), is diagnosed with leukemia and calls on Lee and her sons in hopes of a bone marrow donor. Lee gets Hank a temporary leave from the institution and the three travel to Florida. For Lee, it is her first meeting with her father, aunt and sister in two decades. For the boys, it is the first time they ever see this part of their family.

Much of the drama in the Jerry Zaks-directed Marvin's Room comes courtesy of the contrasting personalities of Lee and Bessie. Bessie plays the role of the selfless sister, forsaking her personal life to care for her father Marvin (Hume Cronyn), while Lee seems to have simply run out of patience raising a family on her own.

But the film's vital connections are made between Hank and Bessie. Hank is hardened, thinking no one in the world does anything for any reason other than selfish ones. Hank is looking for unconditional love and is wary about getting tested for his bone marrow compatibility to a woman who had never bothered to send him a birthday card. Bessie has to earn Hank's trust before she gets her wish.

But Hank eventually does open up to his aunt and the two find a unique bond. In one especially memorable scene, the two drive along the shallow ocean water in utter happiness, each finding what they most desire; for Hank a sense of love and, for Bessie, a piece of rebellion.

All of the performances are powerful, glowing with believability and all eliciting serious amounts of compassion. Both Keaton and Streep are in fine form, to the point where they may be competing against each other at Oscar time. In fact, this cast is so good that DeNiro's supporting role as the diligent Dr. Wally could easily be overlooked.

In this thick mist of serious drama, Verdon as the helpless aunt and Dr. Wally's brother, played by Nick Mancuso of Cheers fame, provide a healthy dose of comic relief. The latter character's dopiness is, however, taken to somewhat of an extreme.

But there is little else extreme, or odd, about Marvin's Room. There is no happy Hollywood ending. None of the bone marrow matches and we never learn whether or not Bessie gets a donor. What we do learn is how startlingly real characters can be and how a strong enough cast can make them seem larger than life.

–Paul Fruitman

To Contact The Entertainment Department: gazent@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright The Gazette 1997