In Marvin’s Room, Bessie (Diane Keaton), who has devoted her life to caring for her stroke-impaired father (Hume Cronyn) and brittle old aunt (Gwen Verdon), discovers in tired middle age that she has leukemia. Bessie is a coper; even while receiving the bad news from her pleasantly disorganized doctor (Robert De Niro), she’s more concerned about Dad and Auntie. But now even Bessie needs help — and for that, she calls on her rebellious younger sister, Lee (Meryl Streep), who reluctantly comes to test as a bone marrow donor, along with her troubled teenage son, Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his kid brother (Hal Scardino from The Indian in the Cupboard).
The dying teach the healthy about living in Scott McPherson’s adaptation of his own 1991 stage play. Bessie’s gentleness gets Hank to open up about his anger. And Lee, a single mother fierce about the freedom won by leaving home, comes to appreciate the reward her sister finds in commitment. Are you weeping yet? Marvin’s Room is unrelentingly depressing when not morbidly funny (the playwright died of AIDS in 1992, and the AIDS subtext is everywhere if you look for it). And the movie, directed in his feature film debut by noted Broadway talent Jerry Zaks (Guys and Dolls), doesn’t really lift off from the stage.
But for the performances of Keaton, Streep, and DiCaprio, it’s worth putting up with some free-floating sentimentality. Keaton’s warmth, freed from that fluttery thing she so famously does and only enhanced by her bravely shopworn look, thaws any Streepish coolness, and the two get off on each other far more honestly than, say, Keaton bonded with Bette Midler in The First Wives Club. The deeply gifted DiCaprio, meanwhile, keeps right up with these older pros. The three are so full-bodied and so powerfully affecting that you’re carried along on the pleasure of being in the presence of their extraordinary talent. B