Monday, October 06, 2008

"Rachel Getting Married"

A wedding is really, at heart, a perfect cinematic device. It’s the forced coming-together of family and friends, interacting and spending time with one another regardless of conflicts, proving either watchably combustible or blissfully integrated. Jonathan Demme’s return to his no-frills ‘80s filmmaking roots, “Rachel Getting Married,” may be the wedding film to top all wedding films, but not in terms of its size, scope or happenings contained therein, but rather its ability to capture compelling human authenticity, and never striking a false moment. Demme has described this as a “home movie,” and that’s how it feels, albeit a more intimate, revealing home movie than we’d ever actually see. Dramatic events don’t really unfold before us; we’re basically watching a family coming together for a wedding, and insights are for us to pick up on or notice.

Through it all, Demme employs no written score, allowing natural music – two members of our ensemble work in the music industry, and assorted wedding band members are rehearsing throughout the house – to set the scenes. It’s rare when a film’s intended naturalistic fimmaking techniques actually feel earned; the presence of a handheld camera can just as often feel distracting and intrusive. But here, every moment is infused with recognizable realism, that the handicam (wielded by Declan Quinn) and fly-on-the-wall approach feels organic, and necessary, to the proceedings. We don’t feel like an awkward eavesdropper to the events, but like an active, involved participant. It’s filmmaking that radiates spontanaeity (and I have no doubt much of the dialogue was actually improvised), but the character etchings and emotional tumult are too masterful to be mere happenstance.

However, all the naturalism in the world wouldn’t mean much if these weren’t characters we felt compelled to spend time with. While the whole ensemble does fine work, the four key components of this family – sisters Kym (Anne Hathaway) and Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), and their divorced father Paul (Bill Irwin) and mother Abby (Debra Winger) – are alternately sympathetic, frustrating, and above all, blisteringly real. There’s no one here that can be encapsulated in a one-line character description. Kym is the source of most unease at this particular wedding; she’s just gotten out of rehab to attend Rachel’s wedding at their father’s Connecticut house. Her love for her family is evident, but she’s also hindered by a mixture of self-loathing and self-obsession, feeling the need to steal the spotlight at every opportunity (she turns a wedding toast into a narcissistic, AA-style ramblethon, and demands Rachel replace her best friend and name her maid of honor), and unleashing cutting, unnerving remarks as if they were compliments.

She’s also responsible for a family tragedy hanging over the affair that no one wants to talk about, and that the rest of the family seems (slightly) more willing to forgive her for than she does (at an AA meeting, she candidly reveals, “Sometimes I don't want to believe in a God that would forgive me.”). Rachel just longs to relish the joys of her wedding to a man she loves, but gradually begins to accept, once Kym comes into the equation, the diminishing chances of that happening. She’s long been acquainted with Kym’s self-absorption, as well as dad’s coddling and favoring of the “troubled” child, and her receding into the background whenever Kym’s around. Both Paul and Abby have found new lovers since divorcing; for all of dad’s attempts at soothing unpleasant incidents and placating guests with food, he’s the most emotionally expressive, occasionally letting loose with tears and unrestrained jubilation. Abby, meanwhile, is ball of repressed feelings, barely ever being open with what’s boiling underneath and not seeming terribly comfortable with her position as the “distant” parent.

I’ve never been a particular detractor of Hathaway before, I just rarely find her very interesting. She’s capable and possesses some form of talent, I just generally find her boring more often than not. Her performance at Kym is stunning, not simply for showcasing aspects of her that we’ve never seen before, but for etching a full, rich, complicated character that never for a second feels like an awards-baiting gimmick. Every family has at least one Kym, and depending on your relationship with them, you may feel alternately like slapping her or hugging her. Hathaway doesn’t instruct us to like Kym (in fact, she’s an outright pain-in-the-ass), but she also portrays her torment with enough unflinching honesty that it’d be almost cruel to deny her a chance for some sort of redemption or peace of mind. Oscar talk has been abound for the actress for months now, and I think such reward would be much-deserved. However, Hathaway wouldn’t make near as much of an impression were DeWitt not matching her every step of the way. She’s asked to pull off the “good” sister who’s also the “lesser” sister, and in every interaction, you can see the lurking resentment that only rarely gets expressed. The two may not look a ton alike, but they really feel like sisters, and their scenes together ring the truest out of anything in the movie.

Theatre veteran Irwin is unquantifiably loveable as the warmest character in the film as the parent who want to soothe all problems and forget the past, but can’t avoid his place as family mediator. It’s an excellent performance full of pathos, but it’s his drop-dead hilarious reaction to good news late in the film that I can’t get out of my head. Winger, who’s been largely absent from movies for over a decade now (only popping up in bit parts in “Radio” and “Eulogy”), is barely in the movie, so it’s even more of an accomplishment that she makes the impression that she does. Her screentime registers maybe a handful of minutes, but in that time she participates in both the film’s most explosive and most touching moments, while letting her eyes and in-check emotions do most of the work. While Winger carries sentimental "loved-but-missed" nostalgia baggage with her, this is a fantastic performance on its own terms, creating a complete, complex character in an extremely brief amount of time.

I can’t quite decide if the title “Rachel Getting Married” is misleading (promising a more upbeat, simple film) or merely an ironic joke (Kym is perpetually trying to steal the spotlight and take the focus off the fact that Rachel is getting married), but I certainly like it better than the original, “Dancing with Shiva,” which doesn’t really nail it either. Going in, one should be prepared for what the movie is, not what advertising is selling (a friend described it as “an emotional action movie”); so while it may be relegated to the ‘Comedy’ category for awards like the Golden Globes, and not without its funny moments, this is in no way a comedy. The inevitable comparisons to “Margot at the Wedding” are understandable and justified (they share a plot framework and thematic points), but while I like that underrated film, “Rachel” is open and inviting where “Margot” thrived on discomfort and detachment.

This is rough stuff emotionally – every bitter argument, painful memory and hurtful line of dialogue rings unsettlingly true – but somehow, there’s an abject feeling of warmth to it all from minute one. Demme mixes the bitter with the sweet, refusing to designate “sad” and “happy” story beats, and as a result, the film’s power sneaks up on you, never giving us a single “aww” moment or emotional wallop. Those impermeable to understatement may shrug off “Rachel,” and I have no doubt highly pitched recommendations or rave reviews will inevitably lead to some “so what?” reactions, but others will be unquestionably drawn in by its unmatched generosity of spirit and unfiltered levels of heart, pain and emotional truth. We still have three months to go, and about a dozen potentially great movies heading our way, but at this premature juncture, “Rachel Getting Married” is my favorite movie of 2008.


Blogger Richard said...

Nice review, Rob. I agree about how Demme "refuses to designate sad and happy story beats" - I loved when Kym speaks to that directly when Rachel announces that she's pregnant, like how she's really annoyed that the mood could swing so dramatically between two poles.

Oh and I think the film's final shot definitely defends the title...

12:19 PM  
Blogger Actionman said...

Easily one of the best films of the year. Hathaway is amazing in this; never thought I'd say that about her. Irwin, though, is the one who made me cry.

11:23 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

The quality of this movie became increasingly evident as I could not stop thinking about it throughout the weekend. I'll admit that I had trouble at first with the cinematograhpy. Yet, it gives the feeling of a home movie.

Thought provoking. Favorite line: "Sometimes I don't want to believe in a God that would forgive me." I'm a minister. I'm using this in a sermon!

11:15 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home