It's a wonderful life

Marvin's Room makes suffering bearable, while Ghosts is just insufferable

McPherson is lobbing an old chestnut here: The soulless career woman who is brought to a reckoning by the motherly caregiver. The dying, childless Bessie is untainted by ambition, while Lee--who has the good health and the children--is isolated in her worldly unhappiness. There's something archaic and punitive about this. Imagine, for example, how this saint-and-sinner scenario would be overturned if Lee had found fulfillment in her life, in her career. But the life-affirming lessons in Marvin's Room all run one way: Lee learns from Bessie how to care, but Bessie doesn't learn much from Lee. She doesn't need to. She's pretty damn near perfect.

Bessie, in all her perfection, is like a fantasy figure both of how to endure and of how to provide. McPherson, who died of AIDS complications, must surely have had AIDS in mind while writing Marvin's Room. Bessie's predicament carries metaphorical weight; so does her selflessness. Whether we are afflicted or tending to the afflicted, this angel of mercy represents how we would all like to be.

The character of Bessie is a risky conception for a playwright to pull off. Pure goodness grates. But the right actress can make goodness compelling--transcendent even. The people who made this film made a lot of wrong turns, but they made one turn so magically right that it took them straight into the marrow of their art. Marvin's Room is anointed by Diane Keaton.

Lots of hearts are in the right place in Rob Reiner's Ghosts of Mississippi, but none are beating. Scripted by Lewis Colick and based on the true story of how the killer of civil rights activist Medgar Evers was finally brought to justice, the film is a dull and platitudinous piece of Oscar bait.

Alec Baldwin plays Hinds County assistant district attorney Bobby DeLaughter, who is assigned to the case in 1989 after evidence comes to light of jury tampering in the two 1964 Evers murder trials--both ending in hung juries. The role doesn't bring out the best in Baldwin--rectitude never does. He shows us his concern for justice by inhaling deeply and not blinking a lot. The racist killer, Byron De La Beckwith, is played by James Woods mostly as an old man, and his Latex jowls jiggle menacingly whenever he drawls. Meanwhile, Whoopi Goldberg as Evers' widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, is such a mount of rectitude she makes Joan of Arc look like a slacker. Goldberg reads her lines as if she were etching stone with them.

We're put through the usual paces: Bobby's marriage, to the unfeeling daughter of a legendary racist judge, founders; he finds new love with a nurse who realizes his true worth; his son is beaten up by bullies; the threats pour in; his house is targeted by bombers; he flinches momentarily before renewing the fight. It is the peculiar achievement of Ghosts of Mississippi that it turns a great and inspiring true story into a John Grisham-y thing. Why is Hollywood spending so much time and money these days whipping the South? Maybe it's because, in these post-cold war PC times, a good villain is hard to find. Murderous racist crackers have become the new commies.

Marvin's Room.
Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, Hume Cronyn, Leonardo DiCaprio, Gwen Verdon, Robert De Niro. Written by Scott McPherson. Directed by Jerry Zaks.Opens Friday, January 10.

Ghosts of Mississippi.
Alec Baldwin, Whoopi Goldberg, James Woods, Craig T. Nelson. Written by Lewis Colick. Directed by Rob Reiner. Now showing.

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