Screenplay : Scott McPherson (based on his play)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1996
Stars : Meryl Streep(Lee), Leonardo DiCaprio (Hank), Diane Keaton (Bessie), Robert De Niro (Dr. Wally), Hume Cronyn (Marvin), Gwen Verdon (Ruth), Hal Scardino (Charlie), Dan Hedaya (Bob)
"Marvin's Room" is about people who should be close, but aren't. The movie's central relationships are both characterized by physical and emotional distance: a pair of estranged sisters who haven't heard from each other in twenty years, and a mother/son relationship that is strained to the point of breaking.
The sisters are Bessie (Diane Keaton) and Lee (Meryl Streep). Twenty years ago, their father, Marvin (Hume Cronyn), had a stroke, and Bessie had to move to Florida to take care of him and her sick, soap opera-obsessed Aunt Ruth (Gwen Verdon, who starred in "All My Children," the soap her character compulsively watches). Lee, who didn't want to spend her life taking care of an invalid and slowly dying father, left for quick marriage and motherhood in Ohio.
Years later, Lee's husband is long gone, and her oldest son, Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio), is a seventeen-year-old delinquent in a mental institution for burning down their house among other things. Her younger son, Charlie (Hal Scardino), watches everything with wide eyes over the edge of his books, but thankfully doesn't follow in his brother's footsteps.
Bessie and Lee are given a forced reunion because Bessie is diagnosed with leukemia, and her doctor (Robert De Niro) wants to test all her family members for matching bone marrow. The two sisters' coming together is like two worlds colliding. Bessie, who has spent the greater portion of her life taking care of others, is now the one who needs help, and Lee, who has spent the greater portion of her life thinking only of herself and her own dilemmas, will now have to deal with the family problems she tried to leave behind.
The ultimate irony of the story is that family problems can't be left behind. Lee purposely avoided dealing with her sick father because she thought it would weigh her down, so she jumped into a life weighed down instead by a bad marriage and a troubled child. The lesson is that accepting responsibility for your loved ones is a necessity for life, something that can't be avoided. The film, which was adapted by Scott McPherson from his play, shows in open fashion that the greatest gift of life is loving, not being loved.
The center of the movie is "family," something there is not enough of in America right now. When Lee tries to make Bessie consider putting their father in an old age home, Bessie stoutly refuses because he would be away from family. When Lee openly voices that she doesn't want to move to Florida to take care of their father in case Bessie gets too sick, she says, "I'm not going to waste my life!" "You think I've wasted my life?" is Bessie shocked response. She sees her responsibility to take care of Marvin as something wonderful, while Lee sees it only as a burden.
The main strength of this film is not its message, but rather its rich characterizations. Keaton and Streep both give wonderful performances as they portray two women who chose different paths, but still made similar mistakes. The movie would be lopsided if Bessie was perfect and Lee was a wash-out. McPherson wisely invested fault and victory in both of the sisters.
Leonardo DiCaprio gives another standout performance as Hank, a troubled teenager whose problems might be solved if someone would react to his antics with compassion rather than antagonism. He's a pathological liar and his moods are sudden and often selfish, but lurking underneath is a sensitive kid who regrets a life spent with no family to support him. When Bessie shows a genuine interest in him, he slowly opens up and allows her in. Their quiet scenes together are some of the best in the movie.
Then there's Robert De Niro, who makes a rare turn as comic relief. As the affable Dr. Wally, he's a few million miles away from his performances in films like "Cape Fear" and "Taxi Driver." Dr. Wally makes a few appearances to lighten the tone, along with his goofy brother Bob (Dan Hedaya) who works the front desk at the clinic. They have a humorous rapport throughout the film that no one would expect from these two actors.
"Marvin's Room" is ultimately a sweet and effective story with real values and an understanding of the difficulties of estranged relationships and broken families. It's not often that a movie embraces the notion of giving your life to someone else with nothing in return except the simple satisfaction that you were allowed to love a person that much. "Marvin's Room" is memorable because it holds tight to the simple belief there are still nice people out in the world.
©1997 James Kendrick