They sure put together an all-star cast for Marvin’s Room: Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, Robert DeNiro, Leonardo DiCaprio, and at least a couple other recognizable names, though not on the level of these four.
Keaton moved down to Florida to take care of her parents twenty years earlier. Her mother subsequently died, but her father is still alive. Following a series of strokes, he is bedridden and feeble-minded, grunting and burbling incoherently, needing to be soothed with calming talk and the distraction of Keaton using a handheld mirror to flash lights onto the wall. He’s basically reverted to about the level of a one year old.
Also living with them is Keaton’s aunt, a batty old woman who spends much of her time watching soap operas. Her role in the household is somewhere between that of someone to help with the father and someone who needs Keaton’s care herself, probably closer to the latter.
Keaton has been estranged from her sister Streep this whole time, since Streep declined to help with their parents. Streep has more of a working class existence in Ohio, as a single mother of two boys, working her way through cosmetology school.
The older boy, 17 year old DiCaprio, is unhappy with his life, his mother, and the fact that his father is out of the picture. (His father’s a loser, but he doesn’t know or remember that, since he was only four when his mother fled the marriage.) He sets fire to the family photos and runs away from home with his little brother. The house burns down, he’s caught, and he’s put in a mental institution.
Keaton is told by her doctor DeNiro that she has leukemia and needs to find a bone marrow donor from her family. This forces her to contact Streep. Streep comes down with her two boys (DiCaprio on a week pass from the institution) for a visit and for them all to be tested.
So the bulk of the film is then about this family dealing with the rift between sisters, the troubled teen, the feeble father, and Keaton’s sudden health crisis.
Marvin’s Room fits squarely in the tearjerker genre. Maybe even a little too much, since it gets right up to the maudlin line and perhaps crosses it at times. The music contributes to that. It can all be a bit heavyhanded.
But it deals with multiple very emotionally important and thought-provoking issues, and it mostly does so competently enough to be watchable. To some extent I cared about the characters and their relationships, and I appreciated a chance to reflect on some of the human issues the story raises.
Some aspects of the movie didn’t work all that well for me. DeNiro is underused. Plus he’s made into a semi-comic bumbling figure, just as the aunt is a half serious, half comic character.
I understand the filmmakers are trying to keep things from being unrelentingly and oppressively heavy—all about death and aging and cancer and family conflict. But the various attempts throughout the movie to inject a little humor, a little lightness, mostly seem misplaced.
Carla’s ex-husband Nick from Cheers is a purely comic character as DeNiro’s brother and receptionist. And while that’s as incongruous as anything in the movie, I’m going to give it a pass because he’s actually really funny.
Streep is a mixed bag. Maybe I’m unusual, but I have trouble with her when she plays a working class character or a comic role. It comes across as self-conscious slumming, like Pavarotti voicing one of the Chipmunks on a lark. I know she’s supposed to be one of the great actresses of our time, but I honestly think someone like Catherine Keener, Patricia Clarkson, the Maggie Gyllenhaal of Sherrybaby, or heck even half of the actresses in obscure indie dramas I’ve seen whose names I don’t know, would have been more real and more believable in this role.
I warmed to Streep over time though. Once the action shifted to Florida, I found I was mostly used to her and fine with her performance.
As far as the issues, I see where both Keaton and Streep are coming from in their opposite decisions about caring for their ailing parents. In their shoes I would probably react more like Streep (the guy’s little more than a vegetable, he’s just not there anymore, I wouldn’t want to get trapped into decades of taking care of him because of an emotional attachment to what he used to be), but Keaton makes the case for the other side quite well.
The whole leukemia thing is terribly sad of course, and well handled. (Keaton is solid throughout by the way.)
I can think of several lines, several interactions in the movie that spoke to me, that conveyed something interesting and important about relationships and life crises. There’s no need to recite them all here, but suffice to say that the movie does enough well to make it worthwhile.
I think, though, that with this cast to work with, and with these issues to explore, Marvin’s Room could have been considerably better.