Marvin's Room

Two sisters have been estranged for years, since Bessie (Diane Keaton) chose to care for their ailing father and Lee (Meryl Streep) chose not to. Lee carts her two sons—the older having lived in an institution since setting fire to their house—to Florida to meet Bessie, who's gravely ill, and the sisters become competitive when Bessie develops a rapport with the delinquent teenager that's deeper than anything his mother has managed. Perfect acting by Keaton and Streep outshines the screenplay by Scott McPherson (who wrote the original play), even as the performances are overwhelmed by cinematography so gorgeous and distracting it makes the drama seem like just so much wheel spinning. And despite universal themes—among them the delicate balance each of us must find between our obligations to family and our drive to lead independent lives—the story rings false. Several characters' chronic illnesses—which are frequently milked for comedy as well as poignancy—seem to stand for something else, something dark and idiosyncratic that McPherson couldn't bear to be more literal about. Directed by Jerry Zaks (1996).

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