29 November 2008

Rachel Getting Married

Directed by: Jonathan Demme
Written by: Jenny Lumet
Full credits from IMDb

These last five years, director Jonathan Demme has divided his time behind the camera between star-driven Hollywood vehicles—like The Truth About Charlie—and lefty documentaries, like Jimmy Carter: The Man from Plains. In his latest film, Rachel Getting Married, he combines the two styles of filmmaking, fusing the star-driven narrative fiction film with the vérité approach of on-the-ground non-fiction. The titular Rachel is not the only one tying the knot here—so are two aesthetics.

Unfortunately, American directors don’t make true-to-life movies like this often enough. A reliance on predictability and broad archetypes has come to define the country’s cinema, particularly, as of late, its independent sector. Countless recent films, like Diminished Capacity, Expired and Henry Poole is Here, are ostensibly quirky, but their characters are flat and their narratives are tied up neatly—and unnaturally. They don’t challenge audiences, in any meaningful ways, to reassess their lives or their movies. They simply conform to their expectations.

Rachel Getting Married, in contrast, is a refreshing, confounding and invigorating injection of the authentic. It’s not quirky; it’s down-and-dirty. Demme rejects the usual indie clichés in exchange for something more ambiguous and therefore more honest. He offers the audience little in terms of backstory or resolution; most of that is merely implied, through action and tossed-off dialogue, pushing the audience to confront not only its feelings about the American family but also about the artificiality of Tinseltown storytelling.

Kym (a type-defying Anne Hathaway) takes a leave of absence from rehab to attend her sister Rachel’s wedding at their childhood home in Connecticut. Set over the course of three days, the film covers the preparations, the rehearsal dinner, the ceremony and the morning after while the characters parcel out harbored resentments like early and unasked for Christmas presents. Kym and Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) do much of the battling, though the rest of the family gets in on it too, from the flamboyantly non-confrontational father (Bill Irwin) to the emotionally distant mother (Debra Winger). Both parents get a Big Acting Moment: when Irwin, forced to confront a past tragedy, sobs, flitting his hands to shoo away would-be consolers like gnats, his clowning background—he graduated, literally, from clown college—gives him the litheness to accentuate perfectly his character’s histrionics. In a late scene, Winger takes a smack from Hathaway before returning it with such brutality that it stands as one of the year’s most emotionally ferocious moments of film violence.

Demme follows the conventions of realistic moviemaking: he shoots the bantering, bickering and bitch-slapping with a shaky handheld camera, using jump cuts and unsteady close-ups to enhance the performers’ emotional intimacy. And he lets the musical score emerge organically from the action. Over the opening credits, we hear a group of musicians practice “Here Comes the Bride.” In a more typical, destined-for-TBS flick, we might have heard the tune played straight through. But here, the musicians clunk their instruments, begin the piece, stop and start again. By opening the film with a crude rehearsal, Demme signals that what’s to follow will be just as unpolished.

In fact, Rachel Getting Married’s director and actors don’t even seem to be working from a script. That’s less a criticism of Jenny Lumet’s screenplay than a testament to the naturalness of the direction and the authenticity of the actors. The film feels like a documentary about real members of a real wedding party. (A lengthy sequence of music and dancing following the wedding, likely not part of the script, is one of the film’s several home-movie-like interludes that wallow blissfully in observation.) The script offers little backstory for any character except Hathaway, but the actors seemed to have worked it out for themselves. The simplicity of the plot gives them plenty of space to experiment, which in turn gives the film an aura of improvisation. The actors talk over each other, finish each other’s sentences, and allude vaguely to personal history without elaboration—just as a real family would. It’s so lived-in that the ups-and-downs of the characters become the audience’s own. If a filmmaker is owed a debt of inspiration here, it’s not the screenwriter’s father, Sidney. It’s Robert Altman. (Indeed, he gets a “special thanks” in the end credits.)

Behind the domestic drama, Demme constructs a celebration of multiculturalism, the promise of liberalism in action. Rachel’s husband (TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe) and his family are African-American, which Demme doesn’t acknowledge, as though unremarkable; the wedding’s theme, in food and dress, is Indian; and the music runs the gamut from English folk to bebop sax. When the wedding cake is cut, it’s by the whole family, a mound of stacked, black-on-white hands that functions as the defining image of the movie’s message of togetherness—not just of multiracial harmony but of family unity.

For all its hostility and shared tragedies, the central characters in Rachel Getting Married are still a family. Fissures are exposed and exacerbated but ultimately set aside, avoiding the sitcom’s impulse for resolution. In the middle of a heated argument, Rachel reveals she’s pregnant and the fight quickly turns into celebration because, for the filmmakers, family’s the worst but it’s also the best. There’s neither forgiveness nor lack of forgiveness, suggesting that when it comes to our kinsfolk, we’re stuck with each other—so love the one you’re with.
During a toast to the bride and groom to be, the groom’s mother notes that this wedding, with families and friends of all races together and celebrating, must be what Heaven’s like. That pan-racial revelry might be the film’s most naïve element, but the credibility with which Demme executes it makes colorblind solidarity seem not only possible but actual. Grade: A

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