"Marvin's Room" sparkles with promise as it begins, $l especially when you see its diamond-studded cast: Meryl Streep. Diane Keaton. Leonardo DiCaprio. Hume Cronyn. Gwen Verdon. Robert De Niro!
But Jerry Zaks' film loses its luster as it draws to its close. Like cut glass, it's ultimately fake and a little dull.
Keaton and Streep play estranged sisters. Keaton is Bessie, the good girl who agreed to take care of her dad, Marvin (Cronyn), when he had a stroke. She ended up spending 20 years as his nurse and her aunt's (Verdon) companion. Streep is Lee, the one who decided not to "waste" her life; she has two children from a bad marriage and is about to graduate from cosmetology school when her maladjusted older son (DiCaprio) burns her house down.
When Keaton's wacky Dr. Wally (De Niro, in a small, restrained role) diagnoses her with leukemia, she has to contact Sis in hopes that a bone-marrow transplant can save her life. This crisis throws the family together in the tiny suburban ancestral homestead in Florida, and everyone starts playing out 20 years of tensions.
It's fun to see Streep as a not-too-bright hairdresser wannabe who has impaired mommy skills. It's certainly the best role in the movie, as she shows that despite her failings and occasional selfishness, she really does care for her kids and the family.
Keaton's role is more problematic. We see her only as her family's caretaker and certain questions are never asked: What would she be if she weren't this? And how has this household supported itself financially for 20 years?
Leonardo DiCaprio is effortlessly believable. Hume Cronyn doesn't actually say anything, though he smiles and gibbers in confusion and fear occasionally.
Verdon is a bright spot as the slightly loopy Aunt Ruth. Taken together, the cast has good chemistry, but it can't heal the flaws in the late Scott McPherson's script. Derived from his play, it was inspired by his upbringing and the painful experience of watching his friends care for each other as they were dying from AIDS.
Keaton's character's life would be a trial by any standards -- and no doubt she holds some grudge, since Bessie and Lee haven't talked in 20 years (it's unclear what her sister's excuse is) -- but by the end Bessie is saying, "I've been so lucky!" Yes, lucky -- lucky to have been able to love her ailing relatives, stuck in a gloomy house for two decades doing, apparently, nothing else. Her fortitude is admirable, her love understandable, but has she NO regrets? Is she all sunshine and light? Sure. Uh-huh.
The family is drawn together by Bessie's enigmatic strength. They sit in Marvin's room, watching reflections from a mirror play on the wall. Reflections are big in this movie; Zaks makes a big deal of aiming the camera down from Cinderella's castle at Disney World to its mirror image in the water.
Perhaps these people's lives are only distorted reflections of their dreams. But mostly thanks to McPherson's screenplay, this idea is too weak to sustain a promising, often funny story, and the film is merely a weak reflection of what it might have been.
Starring Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton
Directed by Jerry Zaks
Released by Miramax
Rated PG-13 (language)
Sun score: **
Pub Date: 2/28/97