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Yet the material gets to you anyway. The difference between Marvin's Room and a TV soap opera may not be vast, but Keaton and Streep manage to pull something emotionally valid out of the ozone. They bring a truth -- an actor's truth, at least -- to their scenes of coy, grievous confrontation. When you walk out of Marvin's Room, you may feel both bamboozled and moved. The actresses dip their toes in the soap-opera bubble bath, but their work is fiercely cleansing.
For twenty years in Florida, Bessie (Keaton) has devoted herself to the care of her ailing father Marvin (Hume Cronyn) and Marvin's dotty sister Ruth (Gwen Verdon). Lee (Streep) has been living in Ohio as a single mother, working in a hair salon. Her two sons are poles apart: Geeky, good-natured Charlie (Hal Scardino) spends his time poring over Jules Verne's Twenty-thousand Leagues Under the Sea. She can't do a thing with Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio), a loveless delinquent who opens the film by torching the family home; his reward is a lockup in the state mental ward. But together with Charlie, they hit the road to visit Bessie, who's written that she's been diagnosed with leukemia and needs a bone marrow match.
The sisters' reunion is a farrago of mixed emotions. Lee, the prodigal daughter, resents Bessie's beatific ease, even when faced with calamity. She resents the way she has been drawn back into the family circle only because, as she sees it, she may be of some medical use to her sister. And as a tense, diffident friendship warms between Bessie and Hank, her resentments mount. Bessie, the childless old maid, is even a better mother than she.
And what does Bessie resent about Lee? Not much, actually. Bessie is so selfless she's saintly -- and McPherson intends no irony in that sainthood. When Bessie talks to Lee about how much love there has been in her life caring for their father, you might think she's trying to one-up her sib. But no, her grace is guileless -- she really is a saint.
Probably no actress alive could wear Bessie's halo as smartly as Keaton. She wipes away your cynicism. With any other actress in the part, Bessie's goodness might have seemed ga-ga. With Keaton you can see the hurt and the rue out of which that goodness came. Bessie's transcendence is hard-won. When she becomes critically ill, she's beyond terror. She has spent so much time ministering to the illnesses of others that her own illness is no stranger to her. Mortality composes her.
Streep is a more mannered actress than Keaton, but her performance is just about as uncompromising. She doesn't soften Lee for us; she doesn't hang her head in recrimination even when the script seems to be nudging her in that direction. In some of her other roles, Streep's willfulness could be wearying; she's so bullish about not being actressy that at times she's all actress, wearing a bulletproof vest of technique.
But her air of remoteness and self-consciousness works for Lee. This is a woman who would be hypersensitive to appearances; she makes her living dolling up the unattractive, and she knows what a piece of armor a makeover can be. Her deepest moment with Bessie comes when she fits her with a new wig to replace the unflattering shag that covers her near-bald pate. It's as if the full resonance of what she does for a living -- and what she has done with her life -- suddenly breaks through her guard.
Aside from the two actresses, just about everything in Marvin's Room doesn't wash. Talented as he is, DiCaprio is grooving on rage without providing much else. He's turning into an actor who's all attitude, and most of it comes out of his mouth; he hasn't yet mastered how to use his body expressively, so at times watching him is like looking at a yowling head. Hume Cronyn spends the entire movie yowling too. Whenever Bessie's saintliness needs a push, the incapacitated Marvin brays from his bed until she calms him with an improvised mirrored light show.
Robert De Niro turns up in a cameo as Bessie's doctor. It's the closest he has ever come to playing Mr. Rogers on film; he exudes neutered niceness. Gwen Verdon has the clunkiest role: Addled, fixed with some kind of pacemaker that keeps opening garage doors, she's a TV soap-opera devotee. Her devotion is supposed to be heartwarming, but all we keep thinking is how close those soap scenarios are to Marvin's Room.
That similarity may be intentional. What McPherson's saying is: Don't be a snob -- there's truth in suds if you scrub down deep enough. Except he doesn't scrub all that deeply. As a family drama Marvin's Room owes something to It's a Wonderful Life. Bessie is like Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey -- the sibling who had bigger plans in life but sacrificed them for a greater good. But her self-sacrifice turns out to be no sacrifice at all. Quite the reverse: It becomes the light of her life. Lee's "plans," by contrast, took her away from family, so she must pay dearly.
McPherson is lobbing an old chestnut here: The soulless career woman who is brought to a reckoning by the motherly caregiver. The dying, childless Bessie is untainted by ambition, while Lee -- who has the good health and the children -- is isolated in her worldly unhappiness. There's something archaic and punitive about this. Imagine, for example, how this saint-and-sinner scenario would be overturned if Lee had found fulfillment in her life, in her career. But the life-affirming lessons in Marvin's Room all run one way: Lee learns from Bessie how to care, but Bessie doesn't learn much from Lee. She doesn't need to. She's pretty damn-near perfect.
Bessie in all her perfection is like a fantasy figure both of how to endure and how to provide. McPherson, who died of AIDS complications, must surely have had AIDS in mind while writing Marvin's Room. Bessie's predicament carries metaphorical weight; so does her selflessness. Whether we are afflicted or tending to the afflicted, this angel of mercy represents how we would all like to be.
The character of Bessie is a risky concept for a playwright to pull off. Pure goodness grates. But the right actress can make goodness compelling -- transcendent even. The people who made this film took a lot of wrong turns, but they made one turn so magically right that it brought them straight into the marrow of their art. Marvin's Room is anointed by Diane Keaton.
Written by Scott McPherson; directed by Jerry Zaks; with Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, Hume Cronyn, Leonardo DiCaprio, Gwen Verdon, and Robert De Niro.
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