Thursday, December 11, 2008

Film Review: Rachel Getting Married

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Rachel Getting Married, Jonathan Demme's latest film, is an extremely welcome return to form. He may have hit his pinnacle of commercial and critical success with The Silence of the Lambs back in 1991, but it seemed to mark his turning his back on the films of his I loved. In movies like Melvin and Howard, Handle With Care, and Something Wild, he showed a remarkable sympathy for the eccentricities of his characters. The stories seemed like opportunities to explore their world and get to know them better. Demme's style wasn't about manipulation or making "points"; it was relaxed, open, and suggestive. With the possible exception of Robert Altman, no U. S. filmmaker has captured more of the texture of everyday life. That changed with The Silence of the Lambs, a cold, ugly exercise in working the audience over. The films that followed (such as Phliadephia) weren't as off-putting, but they came across as bloated attempts at Hollywood prestige filmmaking, with every point spelled out in block letters. Rachel Getting Married, directed from a script by Jenny Lumet, is a considerably leaner and more daring effort. It banks on Demme's ability to create a slice-of-life atmosphere and suggest instead of show. He hasn't worked this way in twenty years, but he hasn't lost his touch. The film is a beautifully realized portrait of a semi-dysfunctional family, with its bonds, tensions, and disconnects.

The film begins with Kym (Anne Hathaway), the family's black sheep, waiting to be picked up from a rehab facility to go home for the weekend. Her older sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) is getting married at their father's house, and Kym's been granted a leave for the occasion. But apart from her father (Bill Irwin), no one's the least bit happy to see her. Kym's drug abuse led to the death of a family member years earlier, and the pain of the loss is still vivid for everyone. And to add insult to injury, Kym is insufferably self-absorbed and insensitive to others. She cracks jokes about Rachel's teenage bout with bulimia, seduces the best man (Mather Zickel) within minutes of being introduced to him, and throws a tantrum over Rachel's best friend Emma (Anisa George) being maid of honor instead of her. Kym's boorishness reaches its nadir at the rehearsal dinner, when she turns an impromptu speech congratulating her sister into an embarrassing ramble about her progress in the twelve-step program. Rachel can barely stand Kym, and her contempt for her sister goes much deeper than aggravation: she's convinced that Kym uses her problems to manipulate everyone. When Rachel discovers that Kym slandered the family in rehab to gain sympathy, she's so incensed that she's ready to kick her sister out of the wedding altogether.

The conflict between Kym and Rachel is extraordinarily vivid, and it stands out because Demme does such a tremendous job of dramatizing the harmony between almost everyone else. The affection Kym and Rachel's father has for them is palpable, as is the love between Rachel and her fiancé Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe). Rachel and Emma have an easygoing rapport with one another, and Emma's teasing, good-natured speech at the rehearsal dinner helps emphasize what an ass Kym makes of herself during her turn at the mike later on. The warmth of the bonds among Sidney's extended family is especially sweet; whenever they take center stage it's hard not to look at the screen and grin. And Demme is unsurpassed when it comes to staging parties. The rehearsal dinner, wedding, and reception scenes have such immediacy that one almost feels as if one is among the attendees.

His handling of the key dramatic scenes is also remarkable. At one point Sidney and Rachel's father get into an impromptu competition over who can most quickly and fully load the dishwasher. Various family members gather to cheer them on, and Demme catches one up in the happy atmosphere only to pull the rug out from under it--an unexpected reminder of past tragedy stops everything cold. It's a masterfully paced sequence, and the quiet, dramatic shift from joy to sadness leaves one slightly stunned. The word stunning doesn't do justice to a confrontation scene between Kym and Abby (Debra Winger), her and Rachel's mother. As bad as things are between are between Kym and Rachel, their conflicts are nothing compared to the one between Kym and Abby, a charming but distant woman who can barely bring herself to acknowledge her daughters. The scene between her and Kim momentarily erupts into violence, and those two slaps are more shocking than any of the gruesomeness Demme served up in his most famous film.

The problems between Kym and Abby aren't resolvable; Abby's smiling, placid exterior runs so deep that she can't acknowledge anything's wrong. That slap was more about shutting Kym up than anger over what was said. Her relationship with Rachel isn't much better; the two are civil, but Abby can't help but blithely remind Rachel that she simply isn't a priority. The film calls out for a reconciliation, and it ends up being between Rachel and Kym. The scene is simple and wordless: on the morning of the ceremony, Rachel sets aside her anger and calmly gets her sister cleaned up and dressed. Demme handles the scene with a lyrical grace, and it's the most affecting moment in the film.

It almost goes without saying that Demme gets fine work from his cast. The three main actresses are especially outstanding. The defining feature of Debra Winger's Abby is her poise, and Winger effectively uses it to emphasize both Abby's callousness and her inability to acknowledge discord. Anne Hathaway's Kym is the showiest role. Hathaway lost a shocking amount of weight for the part. Her hair looks like it was cut with pinking shears, and her complexion is almost ghoulishly pasty. She also affects a gratingly flat voice, and the contrast of her appearance and manner with her more familiar glamour-girl looks and charm has a number of people predicting an Oscar nomination. It's an excellent performance despite that. Hathaway effectively conveys the character's bratty sense of entitlement along with her terror that she might not be able hold herself together. She also makes it clear that the first isn't a mask for the second; the tendencies are just two different aspects of Kym's personality. Rosemarie DeWitt has the most difficult role; she has to communicate that Rachel is the eye of calm in the hurricane of her family's relationships. She also has to balance that with Rachel's upsets dealing with her mother and sister. DeWitt has to convince one that Rachel is strong, caring, and at times capable of an almost vindictive anger, and she does a fine job of handling the challenge. Her performance embodies the feelings one takes from the film. For all the anger, pain, and competition of family relationships, love--and forgiveness--can occasionally prevail.

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