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Monday, December 1, 2008

Movie Review: Rachel Getting Married Hitches Great Performances to Revitalized Demme

Rachel Getting Married is a film that, by description, promises studio indie cliché by the boatload. Big name director (Jonathan Demme) and a big star (Anne Hatahway) looking to show her Oscar chops in a drama set around a big dysfunctional family gathering. Plus, the star plays an obnoxious off-putting sourpuss. Cue Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding with Nicole Kidman as the obnoxious sister arriving for her sister's wedding, or Katie Holmes in Pieces of April.

The gratifying surprise then is that Rachel Getting Married is a revelatory gem, a naturalistic film in both acting and photography that never devolves into melodrama. The aces up its sleeve are a remarkable cast and a re-energized director. This is Demme’s best film since Silence of the Lambs, and is also the best screen performance to date by Hathaway, who is mesmerizing and unsparing. Her big eyes seem to swim around in a way that appears predatory but eventually registers as deep wariness, searchlights scouting for the next enemy plane.

The characters are never allowed to devolve into archetypes or one-notes. Yes, Hathaway’s Kym is a needy, dramatic screw-up who can suck the oxygen out of a room, but we get to see enough layers to understand that she is desperately fighting to shoulder the weight of what other see when they look at her.

There is a dark family event that tugs at the corners of the truly happy joining of the film’s title, and Demme doesn’t toy with the fact that Rachel is at its center. It’s neither sprung as an “Aha!” moment nor used as an excuse but it’s present for everyone in subtle and profound ways.

Hathaway is matched by a trio of stellar performers. Bill Irwin as the girls’ father is drawn into Kym’s drama helplessly, ever protective to a fault. His sweetness and crinkle-eyed gaze give him the aspect of someone stunned. Underneath his caring exterior there is brittleness and deep pain. It's a transformative role for a man better known for onstage clowning and movement.

The titular Rachel is played by Rosemarie DeWitt, seemingly plucked from life. There is nothing contrived in her performance or her character. She struggles to make her wedding the centerpiece of attention, as it should be, just as she struggles to get some of the attention mopped up by Kym. Her anger is as palpable as her love, both for her damaged sister and for her husband to be, played quietly by TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe.

Finally there’s Debra Winger as the mother keeping her family at arm’s length to protect herself. Both daughters desperately want her attention – it’s clear that her distance may have been emphasized by divorcing Irwin but started much earlier – perhaps was always there. It’s a brave, nuanced performance – she’s not a monster. Just deeply hurt and self-protective.

This is an unusual film for Demme. He thanks two major directors, Sidney Lumet (whose daughter Jenny wrote the screenplay) and the late Robert Altman, and features his mentor Roger Corman as part of the cast. Of the three his style here is most influenced by Altman and his A Wedding (1978) as well as Dogma 95 films like the classic The Celebration (1998) by Vinterberg.

The feel is of improvisation, though the structure of the movie and the overall subtlety suggest that most of what happens and what’s said was scripted. The camerawork is of the handheld digital variety and Declan Quinn’s cinematography makes much use of natural light. At first it can be a bit off-putting and also can be a bit of a cliché but it begins to serve and heighten the story. The framing and shot choices are anything but arbitrary.

Some have seen this as a return to Demme’s classic 80s style, but despite the welcome presence of offbeat previous Demme stars as Sister Carol East and lazy-eyed Paul Lazer and the liberal use of musicians interwoven as actors and doing their stuff on their instruments (including Robyn Hitchcock) this is light years away from his candy colored breakneck 80s films like Something Wild (1987) and Married to the Mob.(1988) There is a touch of the humanity of Melvin and Howard (1980) but it’s still on a much more intimate scale.

Nor is Rachel Getting Married similar to his big-budget 90s Hollywood stuff typified by the excellent Silence of the Lambs (1991) and the awful remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004). What does tie this in with Silence of the Lambs in particular is Demme’s fascination with women’s lives (something he shares with Altman), and the nuances of character detail - something increasingly getting lost as he’s gone from the 90s through the present decade. If anything this has more in common with his smaller scale documentaries like Cousin Bobby (1992) ove rthe past few years.

It will be a shame if this gets lost in the hoopla at awards time. Rachel Getting Married shows a director returned to full force and mining new territory, ably aided by a great cast. At the end of the day there is no "happy" ending and the closure that Kym wants is not necessarily what she gets, at least not in totality. Still the audience is left with the idea that the far-away island of happiness that Rachel has found in Hawaii may be in reach, someday for Kym too.

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