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Marvin's Room
Starring Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton,
Leonardo DiCaprio, and Robert De Niro
Directed by Jerry Zaks

Marvin's Room is adapted by Scott MacPherson from his original play. Cranky makes no comparison to source material, but in this case, he wishes he had seen the original. It would be easier if I could tell if this thing was a mess from the word "Go," or what.

A couple of weeks ago I chose not to review the first-time directing effort of a well known actor, noting, "even good actors cannot make a poor script work." I do not have the same leverage when it comes to the star names at the top. In the case of Marvin's Room, even great actors cannot do more than make a poor and illiterate script bearable to watch.

Seventeen years ago Marvin (Hume Cronyn) had a stroke. His daughter, Lee (Meryl Streep), left home, declaring, "I'm not going to waste my life," and left her sister Bessie (Diane Keaton) to care for him. They have not seen or spoken with each other in the years since. Lee has a pyromaniac son (Leonardo DiCaprio) who has just torched the house because he hates mom. Bessie has just found out that she has leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant from an immediate family member. She finally makes the call to her sister.

The preview house in which I sat was packed -- star names will do that. There was strong laughter at some of the better gag lines in the piece, but for the most part, as soon as the credits were done and the movie began, everyone left. Lack of depth in a story will do that every time.

Rounding out the cast of Marvin's Room are Robert De Niro as Doctor Wally, a pathologist stand-in for Bessie's regular doctor (who never shows); Dan Hedaya as Dr. Wally's brother; Gwen Verdon as Aunt Ruth, an elderly soap opera addict in that stage of senility where most of her actions are childlike; and Hal Scardino as Lee's younger son, who has little place here.

The relationships between the principal cast alone are filled with conflict and the potential for gripping storytelling. We're talking envy, hatred, death -- emotional conflict of near-Shakespearian proportions. In every case none of the possibilities are exploited.

Streep's and Keaton's characters have no confrontation -- not even a heated discussion about why the former ran out all those years ago, or about why the latter hasn't sent so much as a Christmas or birthday card to her sister or nephews. Keaton never stops to inquire where her real doctor is. She does little more than faint when Dr. Wally admits that he doesn't know how to take blood. It's an attempt at humor that fails miserably, and ticked Cranky off royally (more below). The mother-son problem between Streep and DiCaprio does little more than set up an admittedly funny scene between Streep and DiCaprio's asylum shrink. "Aunt Ruth's" medical problems exist solely for the purpose of setting up gags. It is sad to see what parts are left to Hume Cronyn since his wife and partner, Jessica Tandy, passed away. His great talent is tremendously wasted in this piddle of a role. Gwen Verdon looks like hell, but her character is supposed to. Honest to God I had no idea who was playing the role until I read the credits.

MacPherson's script pushed every button it could have to tick Cranky off. Senility is not funny. A sight gag involving Ruth (which I won't go into, on the slim chance you want to see this thing) has been done to death. That none of the conflicts are explored, or resolved -- indeed that the mother-son bit turns into a verbal psychiatric gag -- makes my blood boil. There is no exploration of why DiCaprio's character is a mess. Streep opens a door, Leo shuts it and storms away. End of scene. It is a waste of time.

My displeasure with a manipulative script doesn't begin to come close to the contempt I feel for the film's "medical advisor," who took the money and ran. Cranky has had enough blood taken and tested this last decade to know what a VacuTainer is -- a one needle method for taking all the blood you want in all the containers you want -- and that only a doctor begging for a malpractice suit would take blood if he didn't know how. Dr Wally's flaws are topped only by the use of Hedaya to set up more gags that you've heard or seen a zillion times before.

Anyone wanting to know more about Cranky's medical credentials is welcome to make a sizable donation to his "my bills were a quarter of a million dollars, what were yours?" fund.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Marvin's Room, he would have paid . . .

$2.00

Which is probably a buck too high.

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