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USA 1996
Directed by
Jerry Zaks
98 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Marvin's Room

On paper Marvin's Room has all the hallmarks of a “disease of the month” movie.  The story of Bessie, a spinster (Diane Keaton) caring for her bed-ridden father (Hume Cronyn) and his nutty sister (Gwen Verdon) it’s a debut feature by a director who before had only one TV episode credit to his name.  Bessie is diagnosed with leukemia and asks her estranged sister, Lee (Meryl Streep) to come with her two boys, Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Charlie (Hal Scardino) to see if they might be suitable bone marrow donors. Sounds bad but with a cast like this (Robert DeNiro and Dan Hedaya also get guernsies) you have to give it consideration. And indeed it turns out to be a fine film

Based on a play by Scott McPherson who is also credited with the screenplay although he died  of AIDS-related complications in 1992, Marvin's Room is a moving film about family and the support that they can provide in facing life’s difficulties.

After an unsettlingly comedic opening section in which Robert De Niro plays a somewhat absent-minded doctor (named Dr Wally, no less!) and Dan Hedaya, his slightly screwy brother, the film settles down to exploring the dynamics between the main characters, Bessie,  Lee and Hank, three people who are all emotionally “out there”, uncovering the layers of anger and guilt that variously keep them apart and draw them towards each other.

Plays, which usually have been rigorously honed in their stage life, often provide good source material for film and no doubt a good deal of the strength lies here but the three leads are outstanding: Keaton as the genuinely caring woman cruelly struck-down by life, DiCaprio as the rebellious teenager and Streep as his self-protectively tough-talking mother.  Yes it’s sentimental at times but this is grounded in a drama that for all its concentration on life's problems manages to feel credible and is expressive of a sentiment that is worth expressing – that we can find true happiness by caring for each other.




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