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Make 'Room' for Improvement

By Eric Brace
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 10, 1997

Ah! the old terminal disease ploy. Thatís the one where a member of a dysfunctional family gets really sick, forcing all the others to rally íround the bedside, get over their differences, and say the "L" word. In "Marvinís Room," spinster Bessie (Diane Keaton) is bravely taking care of her slowly dying (and out of it) father, when sheís diagnosed with leukemia. Sheíll need a bone marrow transplant, so, hoping for a match, she calls her sister Lee (Meryl Streep), whom she hasnít spoken to in 20 years. Lee split when dad had his first stroke, leaving Bessie the burden of his care.

Streep, playing a nervous white-trash hairdresser-to-be with overstudied enthusiasm, piles her two boys into the car and drives from Ohio to Florida for the marrow tests. Her sons -- the surly, troubled Hank (played well by Leonardo DiCaprio), and the quiet Charlie (an understated Hal Scardino) -- have to get used to the idea of an extended family, while their mom stands around smoking and acting pissy.

The reunion is predictable, as Lee and Bessie confront each other, along with their own guilt and anger. The stilted script is adapted from the late Scott McPhersonís play of the same name, and it suffers from the playís forced comedy and stagey drama. Keaton and DiCaprio manage to bring several levels of emotion to their characters, but everyone else is a cardboard cut-out.

Director Jerry Zaks (a theater director here making his film debut) tries to create atmosphere by setting nearly every scene in a darkened room. Could someone please turn on a lamp? Throughout, he ends his shots by fading to black, as if he hasnít figured out transitions on celluloid. It gives the whole tale a fragmented feel, when a coherent thread (you know, the river of life, umbilical cords, etc.) is called for. And something has to be said about the soundtrack. Itís all plinky-plink pianos and mewing oboes, trying to jerk those tears a little too hard. No, a lot too hard. The music is awful. Stupendously bad.

MARVINíS ROOM (PG-13) ó Contains some profanity.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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