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Keaton walks away with 'Marvin's Room'

January 13, 1997
Web posted at: 5:00 p.m. EST

From Movie Reviewer Paul Tatara


(CNN) -- First, the good news. An Oscar-winning actress has managed to raise Jerry Zaks' middling screen version of the stage hit "Marvin's Room" above the emotional level of your average TV movie ... but just barely. Meryl Streep has been casually brilliant pretty much every time out of the gate for 20 years now, and, as Lee, the put-upon beautician who must decide if she's capable of actually loving her family, she's very good indeed. That's why it's so surprising that Diane Keaton, of all people, steals the film from her. movie icon (1.3M/37 sec. QuickTime movie)

Keaton has recently gotten a much needed career boost with the popularity of "The First Wives Club," but that kind of pre-digested studio fodder is way beneath her talents. People seem to have forgotten that, after appearing in the first two "Godfather" films and winning an Academy Award for "Annie Hall" back in 1977, Keaton was considered one of our better actresses. "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," "Reds," and "Shoot the Moon" broadened her range a great deal, but, over the years, the promise that Keaton originally showed as a "serious" actress was overshadowed by her inherent Annie-ness. That character defined the Diane Keaton that most of us wanted to see -- awkward, self-deprecating, speaking in endearing little whirlwinds of semi-logic. That's a shame, too, because the career she has ended up with has been a long, sometimes painful string of kooky-cute obviousness like "Baby Boom," "The Lemon Sisters," and even, God help us, a turn as the voice of a wise-ass poodle in "Look Who's Talking Now."

Hopefully, "Marvin's Room" will mark the end of this ugly cycle. Keaton plays Bessie, an unadorned, down-to-earth woman who has devoted her life to taking care of Marvin, her invalid father (played wordlessly by Hume Cronyn.) When Bessie is suddenly diagnosed with bone cancer and must find a matching marrow donor or die, she's forced to make contact with a sister she hasn't spoken to in 20 years. The sister, and her two nephews, then travel to her home in Florida to take the donor test, and to (look out) "open up" to each other for nearly two hours.


Streep plays the sister as just this side of white trash -- bossy, self-absorbed, a cigarette constantly dangling from her lips. It's not much of a role, to be honest, but she gives it the college (in her case post-graduate) try, and manages to win a very familiar, unlikable character at least a little bit of sympathy by the end of the film. Streep's teen-age son is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and, again, anyone who's got a TV has seen this guy about five hundred times before. He's the troubled rebel without a you-know-what who sets fire to his own house and snarls at his mother more often than he talks to her. DiCaprio is the best young male actor we've got (Claire Danes can beat up any of the guys on the playground), but his age is very much a hindrance at this point. "Moody" is an emotion best served in small portions, especially when it leads to the kind of soulful staring that Zaks has milked out of DiCaprio. There isn't much of anywhere to go with this kind of performance, and DiCaprio would be wise to stop working James Dean's side of the street. Dean made three movies, gave the Porsche a little too much gas, and that was that. He never gave us the chance to grow weary of the histrionics. As good as he is, DiCaprio's troubled young saint routine is growing more and more tiresome. He has a long, possibly glorious, career ahead of him. As he gets older, more demanding roles will be offered. Let's hope that all that staring and throwing things hasn't ruined his acting chops by then.

The rather poor script, adapted by the late Scott McPherson from his own play, is an odd blend of weepy homilies and almost casually cruel medical humor. Robert DeNiro, in a very small role as Keaton's doctor, is amusing in a childish sort of way, but his absent-minded professor antics are a little unnerving considering he's dealing with a potentially dying woman. This is probably a stab at gallows humor, but that type of joking is supposed to be done by the condemned, not the person overseeing the hanging. To top it all off, DeNiro actually wears his hair in a wacky, uncombed tangle. Evidently, Professor Irwin Corey was busy making a movie with Martin Scorsese.


That's a lot of big name actors, but Keaton is still the real show here. She single-handedly imbues the film with the simultaneous warmth and gravity that all involved seem to be striving so hard to achieve simply by smiling to herself in a lonely kitchen. Even when Zaks and Scott McPherson have stacked the deck against her (a truly bizarre scene in which she starts bleeding from the mouth and passes out while staring down a big ol' plastic-headed Goofy at Disney World springs to mind), Keaton hangs onto her, and the character's, inherent dignity. For the first time in years, she's not playing Annie Hall, and we should all be thankful that she's been given another chance to show us just how good she really is.

If you're susceptible to this kind of stuff, by all means bring a hankie. If not, stay far, far away.


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