Marvin’s Room (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★
Bessie (Diane Keaton) and Lee (Meryl Streep) are sisters who have not seen each other in twenty years. Lee lives in Ohio with her two sons, Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Charlie (Hal Scardino), and about to get her Cosmetology degree. Hank recently burned the house down and is commanded by the state to seek help in a mental institution. Meanwhile, Bessie lives in Florida with Marvin (Hume Cronyn), her bedridden father, and Ruth (Gwen Verdon), her aunt who is obsessed with a soap opera.
The estranged sisters are going to meet for the first time in two decades because Bessie is informed by her doctor (Robert De Niro) that she has leukemia. She needs one of her close relatives as a possible donor for bone marrow transplant. Bessie might be a candidate.
Directed by Jerry Zacks, “Marvin’s Room” is a melodrama that does not shy away from realities of being with family–the good, the bad, and the not-so-pretty. While the cancer is a scary, sad, and grim diagnosis, the screenplay ensures that the material is first and foremost about the people who must deal with the cards they have been handed. The choices they will have to make is not always going to be easy or clean.
I admired the mother-son dynamic because it does not let anybody off the hook. Lee is not exactly a mother who likes to cuddle with her kids and throw compliments for big or small accomplishments so maybe Hank has reasons to be defiant as a way to get any kind of attention. On the other hand, it is unfair of Hank, despite being only seventeen, to assume that his mother is able read his mind. He wants to know more about his biological father but he has too much pride to bother when to ask the right questions. Over time, we are made to see that the mother and son clash because they are so alike.
The relationships are dealt with proper dosages of honesty and awkwardness, resentment and pain. When the sisters lay eyes on each other for the first time in years, they seem happy, energetic, and even excited. While there is a semblance of truth in their initial reactions, we suspect they will not last. There is a reason, or reasons, they stayed away from each other for so long. It is only a matter of time until they are reminded of it.
At times, however, the picture, based on the play and screenplay by Scott McPherson, comes off a bit overwritten. Symbolisms on top of big revelations are a bit much. For instance, when Lee feels she has no choice but to tell her son the truth about his father, the confrontation happens in a Disney store in Disney World. Hank has constructed a fantasy of his father. His strong feelings for the man is similar to how most of us feel might feel about Disney and our childhood.
In general, tearjerkers have a negative reputation. Too many are not above resulting to manipulation in order to get a point across. But when done right, as the case here, the human element precedes the machinations of the plot. We are reminded of comparable situations that happened in our lives and how we treated those closest to us.