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Death Becomes Her

McPherson is lobbing an old chestnut here: The soulless career woman who's brought to a reckoning by the motherly caregiver. The dying, childless Bessie is untainted by ambition, while Lee -- who has the good health and the children -- is isolated in her worldly unhappiness. There's something archaic and punitive about this. Imagine, for example, how this saint-and-sinner scenario would be overturned if Lee had found fulfillment in her life, in her career. But the life-affirming lessons in Marvin's Room all run one way: Lee learns from Bessie how to care, but Bessie doesn't learn much from Lee. She doesn't need to. She's pretty damn near perfect.

Bessie in all her perfection is like a fantasy figure both of how to endure and of how to provide. McPherson, who died of AIDS complications, must surely have had AIDS in mind while writing Marvin's Room. Bessie's predicament carries metaphorical weight; so does her selflessness. Whether we are afflicted or tending to the afflicted, this angel of mercy represents how we would all like to be.

The character of Bessie is a risky conception for a playwright to pull off. Pure goodness grates. But the right actress can make goodness compelling -- transcendent, even. The people who made this film made a lot of wrong turns, but they made one turn so magically right that it took them straight into the marrow of their art. Marvin's Room is anointed by Diane Keaton.

-- Peter Rainer

Marvin's Room.
Directed by Jerry Zaks. With Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, Hume Cronyn and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Rated PG-13.
98 minutes.

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