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Marvin's Room
Caution, Mother at Work: Meryl Streep drives Leonardo DiCaprio around the bend in Jerry Zaks' "Marvin's Room."

Photo by Phil Caruso

Meryl goes slumming in 'Marvin's Room'

By Richard von Busack

ANOTHER STORY of eccentricity and catastrophic illness (the former lending the latter humor, the latter lending the former weight), Marvin's Room is bearable largely because of Diane Keaton's acting and Jerry Zaks' impressionistic direction.

The story is told in clusters of scenes surrounded with slow fades to black, as if Zaks had been watching Terence Davies (Distant Voices, Still Lives) with interest. In short, the film is not as relentless and indomitable as The Evening Star. Zaks' touches include a microscope slide with blood on it melding into a dingy stained-glass window, and a point-of-view shot of a woman's fainting spell at Disneyworld in which the crowds and the music seem to be closing in on her. (I was reminded of a recent Harper's article about the effects of Florida heat on employees wearing unventilated Goofy outfits; apparently, heatstroke isn't rare.)

Adorned with these touches (let's not use the word artsy; let's instead be glad for art whenever we can find it) is Scott McPherson's basic family-therapy play about a dysfunctional menage called back together by a medical emergency.

Lee (Meryl Streep) has come to Florida to visit her ailing sister (Keaton). In tow is Lee's hostile, fresh-out-of-the-institution son, Hank (Leonard DiCaprio). McPherson evades stating what caused this family to disintegrate, but it's apparently Lee's guilt about not having stayed to take care of her father, Marvin (Hume Cronyn), bedridden and now gabbling with senility.

Lee is supposed to be a trashy single mom whose neglect helped drive Hank around the bend, but you can't believe it for a minute. Streep is toned, clean--even though she has a few slatternly touches, like wearing the same oversized T-shirt for a couple of scenes. The slumming movie queen in Streep is clearly visible behind the working-class mask.

Keaton's own face, untightened from having "work done," serves her better playing this kind of everyday-woman part. She looks frightened and worn, and the role of the good-hearted, intellectually limited woman fits her comfortably.

Her scenes with Robert De Niro offer the best moments. De Niro, overdue for some tangy comedy, plays "Dr. Wally," an oblique, low-budget doctor who, underneath a detached bedside manner, is cruelly keen to make the patient guess what's wrong with her. If not in so many words, he asks Lee to pick a number between one and 10 to count how many years her other sister has left. And when Keaton tells him of her fear of needles, he assures her it is "perfectly natural," even as he's picking out an especially large hypodermic.

Despite this occasional firmness, Zaks is determined to keep Marvin's Room sweet and gentle--naturally, even the old gabbler is rehabilitated. The film tweaks a few feelings about disintegrating family ties and then soothes them with sentimental bits like trips to Disneyworld, perhaps a nod to Miramax's mouse-eared corporate owners (particularly the shot of the mother reaching out to her son in a souvenir shop full of sentimental mementos). It may be about the real pain of illness, estrangement and homelessness, but Marvin's Room is as escapist as anything with explosions in it.

Marvin's Room (PG-13; 93 min.), directed by Jerry Zaks, written by Scott McPherson, photographed by Piotr Sobocinski and starring Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton.

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From the January 9-15, 1997 issue of Metro

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