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3 1/2 stars -- if you liked "Steel Magnolias" . . .
on 22 January 2016
This strongly-cast movie version of the late Scott McPherson's play is notable for a fine early performance by the young Leonardo DiCaprio, just shortly after his strong performance in "This Boy's Life" in the mid-1990's. To put it that way is perhaps a little unfair to the other actors -- Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, Robert DeNiro, and Gwen Verdon, who work hard and honorably with material that is finally less interesting -- because not very compellingly written. Part of the trouble is that the conception of the character of Bessie (Diane Keaton), the selfless sister who has devoted 17 years of her life to taking care of her father, post-stroke (Hume Cronyn), and also looking out for her aunt (Gwen Verdon) who has chronic pain problems and goes around therefore in a cheerful medicated haze. McPherson wrings some humor from a dire situation that is a little cringe-making, but the point is, I suppose, to demonstrate a kind of "steel magnolia" resilience. Bessie is simply too good to be true -- even in her blow-up with her sister Lee (Streep) for deserting her in a time of need 17 years earlier she can hardly make anger credible. When Bessie is diagnosed with leukemia, however, things get serious. Her sister and her sister's children drive down from Ohio to have their bone-marrow checked for a transplant match, so the the scene is set for recrimination and reconciliation. This is where Lee's son Hank (DiCaprio) complicates things -- alienated from his mother, who doesn't know how to relate to him and who is trying to become a professionally certified cosmetologist, and idealizing a father he hardly remembers, Hank burns down his mother's house, is placed in an mental institution, and it's from there that he makes the trip to Bessie's Florida home. Bessie treats him as an adult, he responds to her in a way that he doesn't to his mother, and awakens jealousy in Lee, who just can't stop herself from from being bossy and condescending to him.
All that suggests that in this movie Lee has the meatier part, and Streep suggests through gesture and expression more than through words that she feels guilty about the appalling situation that she left Bessie in all these years before. She can't bring herself to bluntly acknowledge it, but her behavior as the play goes on manifests that recognition, and Bessie, almost perfect as she is, takes the deeds for the statement and a reconciliation is effected. As Hank, DiCaprio, again through gesture and expression more than words, creates a vivid, fresh image of a troubled 17-year-old. He has an expressive mobility of feature unusual in a young actor, and he's very effective. Robert DeNiro has a cameo as Bessie's doctor -- a man who seems kindly yet uncomfortable with people. His brother Bob (Dan Hedaya) serves as his receptionist -- a comic role that could have been done without -- no disrespect to Dan Hedaya, a fine actor when he gets a decent part. Gwen Verdon as Aunt Ruth is almost as badly treated.
The movie avoids one kind of sentimental ending -- thus establishing McPherson's "realist" credentials, I suppose -- by pressing home another. Laughter and tears, we're meant to think -- isn't life just like that!