Death Becomes Her

Marvin's Room, starring Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep as sisters who reunite uneasily for the first time in 20 years, is one of those movies about people who confront the choices they've made and become better for it. Adapted by the late Scott McPherson from his popular 1992 play and directed by Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks, it turns downbeat into uplift. Inspirationalism wafts off the screen in little perfumed puffs.

Yet the material gets to you anyway. The difference between Marvin's Room and As the World Turns may not be vast, but Keaton and Streep manage to pull something emotionally valid out of the ozone. They bring a truth -- an actor's truth, at least -- to their scenes of coy, grievous confrontation. When you walk out of Marvin's Room, you may feel both bamboozled and moved. The actresses dip their toes in the soap-opera bubble bath, but their work is fiercely cleansing.

For two decades in Florida, Bessie (Keaton) has devoted herself to the care of her ailing father Marvin (Hume Cronyn) and Marvin's dotty sister Ruth (Gwen Verdon). Lee (Streep) has been living in Ohio as a single mother, working in a hair salon. Her two sons are poles apart: Geeky, good-natured Charlie (Hal Scardino) spends his time poring over Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, while Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a loveless delinquent who opens the film by torching the family home. His reward is being locked up in a mental institution. Then Bessie writes she's been diagnosed with leukemia and needs a bone marrow match, and Lee and her sons hit the road for a visit.

The sisters' reunion is a farrago of mixed emotions. Lee resents Bessie's beatific ease even when faced with calamity; she resents the way she's been drawn back into the family circle only because, she feels, she may be of some medical use to her sister. As a friendship warms between Bessie and Hank, Lee's resentments mount: Bessie, the childless old maid, is even a better mother than she is.

And what does Bessie resent about Lee? Not much, actually. Bessie is so selfless she's saintly. When Bessie talks to Lee about how much love there's been in her life caring for their father, you might think Bessie is trying to one-up her sib. But no, her grace is guileless -- she really is a saint.

Probably no actress alive could wear Bessie's halo as smartly as Keaton does. She wipes away your cynicism. With any other actress, Bessie's goodness might have seemed gaga. With Keaton, you can see the hurt and the rue out of which that goodness came. Bessie's transcendence is hard-won. When she becomes critically ill, she's beyond terror. She has spent so much time ministering to the illnesses of others that her own illness is no stranger to her. Mortality composes her.

Streep is a more mannered actress than Keaton, but her performance is just about as uncompromising. She doesn't soften Lee for us; she doesn't hang her head in recrimination even when the script seems to be nudging her in that direction. In some of her other roles Streep's willfulness could be wearying; she's so bullish about not being actressy that at times she's all actress. But Streep's air of remoteness and self-consciousness works for Lee. This is a woman who would be hypersensitive to appearances; she makes her living dolling up the unattractive, and she knows what a piece of armor a beauty makeover can be. Her deepest moment with Bessie comes when she fits her with a new wig to replace the unflattering shag that covers her near-bald head. It's as if the full resonance of what she does for a living -- and what she has done with her life -- suddenly breaks through her guard.

But aside from the two actresses, just about everything in Marvin's Room doesn't wash. Talented as he is, DiCaprio grooves on rage without providing much else. He's turning into an actor who's all attitude, and most of that attitude comes out of his mouth; he hasn't yet mastered how to use his body expressively, so at times, watching him is like looking at a yowling head. Hume Cronyn spends the entire movie yowling too. Whenever Bessie's saintliness needs a nudge, the incapacitated Marvin brays from his bed until she calms him.

Robert De Niro turns up in a cameo as Bessie's doctor, and it's the closest he's ever come to playing Mr. Rogers. He exudes neutered niceness. Gwen Verdon has the clunkiest role: Addled, fixed with some kind of pacemaker that keeps opening garage doors, she's a TV soap-opera devotee. Her devotion is supposed to be heartwarming, but all we keep thinking is how close those soap scenarios are to Marvin's Room.

That similarity may be intentional. What McPherson's saying is: Don't be a snob -- there's truth in suds if you scrub down deep enough. Except he doesn't scrub all that deeply. As a family drama, Marvin's Room owes something to It's a Wonderful Life. Bessie is like Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey -- the sibling who had bigger plans in life but sacrificed them for a greater good. But Bessie's self-sacrifice turns out to be no sacrifice at all. Quite the reverse: It becomes the light of her life. Lee's "plans," by contrast, took her away from family, so she must pay dearly.

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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