Marvin's Room (1996) starring Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Hume Cronyn, Gwen Verdon, Hal Scardino, Dan Hedaya Movie Review

Marvin's Room (1996)   4/54/54/54/54/5

Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep in Marvin's Room

Marvellous Marvin's Magical Movie

Dysfunctional, troubled or malfunctioning are all words which go hand in hand with family, an often used staple of modern cinema because the turbulence of a troubled family is packed with potential drama. "Marvin's Room" is one such movie, a film which outwardly looks like it's going to be about one thing, about an illness, only to become something else, something much deeper as it delves into the life of a troubled family, in particular three characters whose issues, resentment and troubles cause problems in their relationships.

Having spent 20 years estranged from her sister Lee (Meryl Streep - The Devil Wears Prada) whilst tending their sick father and eccentric aunt, Bessie (Diane Keaton - Father of the Bride) suddenly calls her up out of the blue with some bad news. The bad news brings Lee back home along with her two sons, the troublesome Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio - The Aviator) and the quiet Charlie (Hal Scardino). With 20 years of being apart and with each having their own troubles it is not an easy reunion but one which may reap more rewards than initially expected.

Diane Keaton and Leonardo DiCaprio in Marvin's Room

"Marvin's Room" is a big screen adaptation of Scott McPherson's play and its heritage of the stage is transferred to the screen with a not so much intense drama but a movie full of captivating interactions and strong dialogue which is anything but fluffy. It's an expanded version of the stage play, taking in different locations, but in widening the landscape it doesn't lose the intensity or emotional impact of each scene, making it both touching and memorable. But rather than being heavy, dark or morose their is a certain amount of light hearted nature to the touching story, giving it that relief it so needs to keep people entertained and uplifted rather than bogged down by the issues of each of the main protagonists. It's a wonderful balancing act which director Jerry Zaks achieves; all the more miraculous considering it was his debut movie as director.

What is most spectacular about "Marvin's Room" is that as it delves into the troubled family and in particular the problems that each of the three main characters deals with such as guilt, cancer and mental illness it never comes across as being morbid. It tries and achieves to make us look for the good in everything no matter how bad things appear. A prime example of which is Bessie who having given up 20 years of her life to look after her sick father and eccentric aunt declares "I've been so lucky to have been able to love someone so much.". It's one of the traits of "Marvin's Room" which makes it compelling because for all the troubles, the personal problems, the intense emotional situations it still manages to be uplifting.

It helps that alongside all the drama "Marvin's Room" has a smattering of humour, irony which makes you laugh and often then makes you wonder whether it's actually right to be laughing. It's not uncomfortable in doing so, it breaks the movie up so that it never hits the depth of being morbid despite its subject matter. Although some of the humorous moments feels slightly too forced, pushed because something needed lightening up but then lacking that natural humour which is demonstrated elsewhere through out the movie. It's an often quoted part of the movie, but it's worth mentioning and that s when the Dr. enquires about Bessie's father to which her response is "My father has been dying for twenty years, slowly, so that I won't miss anything.", it's that dryness to the humour which makes it work in keeping with the rest of the movie.

Having originated as a stage play it is understandable that the movie captures the wordy nature of the original. It's in the revealing dialogue where the movie stands above many other similar films, but it is also in the performances of each of the stars and "Marvin's Room" certainly has a star cast. Working brilliantly together as estranged sisters are Diane Keaton as Bessie and Meryl Streep as Lee, their interactions are compelling from Bessie's joy of looking after her father through to Lee's inner turmoil over her dysfunctional life. I could enthuse about their performances for ages citing them as a perfect lesson in how to create characters but to put it simply, they are both believable and captivating, making you want to watch them as years of separation and resentment dissolves.

Add to this you have Leonardo DiCaprio putting in the sort of performance which makes you understand why he is such a great actor. Starting off as just a rebellious teenager who ends up in a mental institution for setting fire to the family home, the depth of character just keeps on building the longer the movie goes on. DiCaprio makes him more than just a rebel delivering layer upon layer of character with inner turmoil.

As for the rest of the cast well although Hume Cronyn spends the majority of the movie bed ridden and mumbling as the sick father he does deliver a couple of the most touching scenes. Gwen Verdon as the slight eccentric Aunt Ruth gives the movie plenty of light hearted moments with a character with a feeling of it being added for the soul purpose of adding humour to the proceedings. Plus there is Robert DeNiro, taking a supporting role position but delivering a performance both funny as well as touching as Dr. Wally.

"Marvin's Room" is very much a good movie although it does have its issues and the most significant of which is the abrupt ending. It's a movie where what you think it's about never gets resolved nor do all the troubles and in doing so feels slightly weird as if Scott McPherson in not being able to find a perfect, non cheesy ending just stopped it in it's tracks. Maybe this was a good thing as it certainly stops it from ever falling in to the realms of predictable or corny as so many other dramas do in search of a perfect ending.

What this all boils down to is that "Marvin's Room" is both a powerful and emotional drama but one which is watch able because of some light hearted moments and the hope it encourages people to obtain. It's also a movie which requires you to concentrate, listen and observe as in each of the three main performances from Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio as well as the thoughtful dialogue there is a lot to take in. But it is well worth doing as what you get out of the movie is much more than you would most likely expect from one which centres on a dysfunctional, troubled, malfunctioning family.