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'Marvin's Room': No Emote Control

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 10, 1997

"Marvin's Room" seems to exist primarily to road-test every one of your emotions.

Its jarring modulations from comic to sad, tender to brutal, and touching to absurd -- often in the same scene -- demand a compliant viewer ready to switch emotional states at the drop of a hat. For a patient under hypnosis, such blatant manipulation might not present problems. But for most audiences, this bittersweet family saga is going to feel like an ordeal. Terminal disease, old age, teenage nihilism and family feuds become grist for an overbearing seriocomedy.

Since her father, Marvin (Hume Cronyn), became bedridden from a stroke 20 years ago, Lee (Meryl Streep) has been in self-imposed exile in Ohio. Now she's a single mother with two sons, a degree in cosmetology and her fair share of problems.

Although Charlie (Hal Scardino), her younger son, is a sweetheart, Lee is in constant conflict with 17-year-old Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio), a delinquent who has landed in a psychiatric institution for burning the house down.

Meanwhile in Florida, Lee's older sister, Bessie (Diane Keaton), has spent these years caring for the old man as well as Marvin's kooky sister, Ruth (Gwen Verdon). Lee and Bessie, estranged over Lee's decision to fly the family coop, haven't spoken at all. But when Bessie learns she has leukemia, her doctor (Robert De Niro, in a throwaway but amusing role) informs her that a reunion is medically necessary. All family members need to be contacted for potential marrow transplants.

Lee, with both sons in tow, drives south for a wacky homecoming with Bessie, the mousy, dying den mother; Marvin, the bearded semi-vegetable who mutters and twitches in bed; and Rose, who dresses in bridal white when her favorite soap characters get married on TV.

For the late Scott McPherson (who adapted his own play for the screen), Bessie's disease is just a setup for multiple bittersweet conflicts, overloaded with tears, giggles and a thousand permutations pushing the emotional buttons in between.

Predictably, the big acting exchanges are between Keaton and Streep. It's a fascinating battle: Both actresses seek to ingratiate themselves with the audience, but in markedly different ways. Keaton does it with puckered-nose smiles; she's ably enhanced by cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski, who catches her in naturally lighted poses that make her look as if she's bound for Heaven at any moment.

Streep, as usual, makes us acutely aware of her technique, whether it's the mannered, "working-class" way she raises a cigarette to her mouth or the strategic batting of her eyes during altercations with her son. "Marvin" practically crawls with her tics.

Debuting director Jerry Zaks, who cut his teeth on Broadway, compulsively injects comedy everywhere like the archetypical mad scientist. When Bessie passes out on a trip to Disney World, she's taken to a nearby bed by someone dressed up as Goofy. Aunt Ruth wears an electronic medical device around her waist that triggers the automatic garage door whenever someone hugs her. Even Marvin gets a laugh when the electric controls on his bed go out of control. In Zaks and McPherson's most club-fisted attempt at life-affirming poignancy, Hank takes Bessie for a rip-snorting drive in the car on the beach. As they speed along the watery edge, both screaming with emancipated glee, we're supposed to feel an emotional release from all the tension that has amassed. But it's hard not to ponder a front-end collision with Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson, as the aging lovers of the 1983 "Terms of Endearment" partake in their life-affirming drive along the beach. But a surrealistic event like that would have made this movie far too interesting.

Marvin's Room is rated PG-13. It contains graphic language and several unintentional cues to run screaming from the theater.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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