Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Rachel Getting Married

Director: Jonathan Demme
Starring: Annne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Ana Deavere Smith, Tunde Adebimpe, Debra Winger
Runnning Time: 114 min.
Rating: R

★ 1/2 (out of ★)

Rachel Getting Married
is a film full of painfully real moments, to the point where it's almost suffocating you with them. It isn't easy to watch and many times during it I was unsure if it was worth the effort of doing so. By the end I was as exhausted as its characters and wondered why I even spent my my time absorbing a situation this full of unhappiness and conflict. Let's face it, watching characters emotionally victimize one another and throw tantrums for two hours isn't anyone's idea of a great late night rental.

About ten minutes after the credits rolled I realized it was all worth it. I appreciated the film because it accomplished something that so few are able to anymore, and did it despite the fact that the situation depicted is fairly typical. It got me to care and made me invested in what happens to these people who, for a change, do actually feel and act like real people rather than scripted facsimiles of them. It stayed with me longer than I thought it would, probably because I felt as if I was really there. It just takes you in.

Director Jonathan Demme abandons his unusual mainstream bent to make us uninvited guests during a very uncomfortable day and everything that works seems to come from an acute knowledge of how people sometimes can't stop themselves from hurting each other. That isn't news and far from a groundbreaking revelation. But it comes from a real place and is told in an uncompromising, unflinching way, which is more than you can say for most other character driven dramas released by these days.

The film's title and topic may invoke memories of last year's Margot at the Wedding starred Nicole Kidman as the older sister who returns the weekend of her sister's wedding to wreck havoc. That movie's title character was a monster who seemed to take glee in destroying everyone's lives. This more complicated. And it isn't about the title character, Rachel (Rosemary DeWitt), but her younger sister Kym (Anne Hathway), fresh out of rehab for the ceremony and nine months sober. Unfortunately for overprotective (and extremely tolerant) father Paul (Bill Irwin) and step-mother Carol (Anna Deavere Smith) she's determined to complete the "make amends" stage of her 12 step program and plans to do it as publicly as possible, making things very difficult for her sister and groom-to-be Sidney (T.V. on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe).

Kym, self-centered to her core and feeling like an outsider in her own home, lashes out when she learns Rachel has chosen her best friend Emma (Anisa George) instead of her as maid of honor. She starts by sleeping with the best man Kiernan (Mather Zickel), then works her way up to a horrifying toast as things just get even worse from there. It's the reappearance of her estranged mother Abby (Debra Winger in a comeback of sorts) that really sends Kym off the deep end and brings to the forefront the real reason no one in the family can tolerate her. Let's just say by the end of the film your opinion of her may be significantly different than when it began...or it may not be.

Because this seems to be on the surface an ordinary story told in an ordinary way it's up to the script and performances to lift the material to another level, and do they ever. Screenwriter Jenny Lumet (Sidney's daughter) refuses to round off any of these characters' rough edges, which can make for some uncomfortable viewing but the film is more truthful and brutally honest because of it. Many have complained everyone in the film is "unlikable" which falsely operates under the assumption that we should only see movies featuring characters we love spending time with. Sure it would be nice but along that train of thought it would also be nice if we all got along perfectly with all of our family members.

These are difficult characters but I didn't hate them, not even the one character everyone seems to. Hathaway's performance as Kym is everything you've heard it is and more, conveying an entire movie's worth of emotions in single scenes and investing her with a sarcastic, self-deprecating edge that gets under your skin. For me it's the most layered portrayal of any of the Best Actress nominees, an impressive designation considering that as far as we know Kym can read, isn't a child molester and never once served as a Nazi guard. She has her own demons, but the big difference is that I actually felt sympathy for Kym even though Hathaway's performance never suggests that she wants it. Unfairly snubbed during most of the awards season and in the shadow of her co-star's breakthrough, DeWitt gives it out as well as she takes it in an almost equally important role.

Kym's a selfish horror but the nuance in Lumet's script lies in why. Her mother is absent, her father is a great guy but so wishy-washy he can't take a stand on anything and even though Rachel's celebrating the happiest moment of her life she's still worried her troubled little sis will steal the spotlight. Her family isn't free of blame, yet they can't possibly be held responsible either. Kym enters the house prepared for battle and everyone is ready to give her one except for Paul who desperately wants to ignore an issue that can't be ignored anymore.

There's that legendary rule that it doesn't matter what a movie's about, but how. Rachel Getting Married seems to break that rule because not only is what its about something we've seen before in dozens of other independent films, but how its told doesn't exactly re-invent the wheel either. Demme uses the hand-held shaky-cam to invest the proceedings the same claustrophobic quasi-documentary realism Darren Aronofsky used in The Wrestler. When the characters move, we move with them and we're right in their face but here it's much more jarring than in that film and if you're easily prone to nausea you'll be running for the bathroom. Cloverfield is probably a more apt comparison.

Would the film have worked just as well without it? Probably, but I can't say it's a distraction and this method does work well in a story where we're tracking many supporting characters Altman-style. Some of them have larger roles than others but because of Demme's method you're always aware that they're there. The best example is the uncomfortable toast scene, which seems to go on forever, but in the best way. We see everyone's reaction and hear what they have to say even though we're not introduced to many of them. It really does feel like you've just been dropped in on this. And what a relief it is to finally see a movie that doesn't needlessly turn race into an issue or feature writing that congratulates itself for celebrating diversity. It shouldn't be considered noteworthy at all if a white woman marries a black man and this is the rarest of films that actually understands most families would only care if the couple is happy and just want the best for them. Think of how badly another writer less in touch with reality would have screwed that up.

After helming a pair of recent interesting remake flops in The Truth About Charlie and The Manchurian Candidate it's obvious that Demme is relishing telling a smaller, more intimate story, though not necessarily an accessible one. He's commented in interviews that this is the film he's always wanted to make, and it shows. It there's one flaw it's that he seems to be enjoying it a little too much, overstaying his welcome a bit in the third act. When you have characters this interesting the temptation to just keep shooting and give them more room to breath is probably too great to ignore.

Demme keeps going and the actual finale loses a little bit of steam because of it but he's forgiven. Especially when he gives us a musical moment during the ceremony that's not only unexpected, but memorable. What should come off as syrupy instead in surprisingly genuine and I didn't doubt for a second this character would do what he did. Without spoiling too much, it's one of those cases where just the right song is used perfectly at just the right moment in a film and you have trouble hearing it exactly the same way again after that. Once the actual wedding occurs there aren't many places left to go, but I appreciate that Lumet's script refused to take the easy way out with a pat resolution.

This isn't an easy picture to get into and it's no mystery that the Academy didn't embrace it as whole heartedly as many felt they should have. Rachel Getting Married requires some effort and patience on the part of the viewer to fully get behind, but if you surrender to its prickly charms you'll find yourself far better off for having experienced it.

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