Friday, October 24, 2008

Rachel Getting Married (****)

Directed by Jonathan Demme


Jonathan Demme is an Oscar-winning filmmaker who has made such seminal films as Melvin and Howard and The Silence of the Lambs. The last few years of his career have been plagued by unneeded remakes (The Manchurian Candidate, The Truth About Charlie) and indifferent documentaries (Jimmy Carter Man From Plains). So, it suits his erratic nature that he would come out of left field and create one of the best, most beautiful films so far this year. A movie so tender and powerful that it brings out emotions from the deepest, purest parts of our souls.

The film centers on Kym (Anne Hathaway), a recovering drug addict who is allowed out of rehab for the weekend in order to attend the wedding of her sister Rachel (Rosemarie Dewitt). She arrives and is immediately overwhelmed by her caring, but overbearing father Paul (Bill Irwin), and getting perturbed by the constant judgement she feels from friends and family members who know so much about her troubled past. The two daughters get sparse visits from their estranged mother Abby (Debra Winger), who has remarried after her divorce from Paul and is nearly invisible.

The plot builds slowly on the concept of Kym's recovering neediness versus Rachel's wedding-infused self-involvement. Kym is the troubled one, she is the one who everybody's eye is on, and all Rachel wants on the weekend of her wedding is that people will give her a little attention as well. She is getting married to Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), a gentle but towering man and former musician. He has numerous friends who are also musicians who play music seemingly non-stop throughout the entire film.

The main pawn who is shuffled around by the sister's struggles is Paul, whose need to make sure everybody feels comfortable is appeasing to most, but infuriating to those who know him best. The fact that he receives little to no support from Abby is not addressed much, and treated as a simple fact of life. The dysfunction doesn't necessasarily build to a stunning climax, because the point of this film is not the payoff, but the journey. Using mostly handheld camerawork and by extending scenes past the point that seems necessary, Demme infuses the audience into this bothered but loving family. By the time we actually reach the wedding, its such an emotional moment, because you feel like you know these people so well.

One of those extended scenes, in particular, is fascinating. Toward the beginning of the film, all of the film's characters pow-wow around the dinner table, some of them already introduced, but all of them at least seen in a glance. Every important character that we will know so well by the end of the film, has their chance to speak and congradulate Rachel and Sidney in their future ceremony. The fathers stand up and speak, then the mothers, the sisters, the friends, and the dedications are so pure and sincere, that it creates the aura which drives the entire story. Kym, of coarse, uses the oppurtunity to her advantage, and indulges in the fourth step of her "12-Step Program", by making "amends".

I feel like I've gone through this film's story and completely glossed over Kym, the rock on which this great film is built on. Truth is, Kym is the best and most compelling character of all, but the most endearing plot point within the story is this wedding. In a way, the wedding itself can be called the main character, as it drives the motivations of essentially all of the people on the screen. Demme's success in making a film that is so organic as well as tight, comes from the near-perfect screenplay by Jenny Lumet (yeah, Sidney's daughter), who presents characters and makes them unravel so successfully, its a surprise that this is her first script.

But to be sure, this is Demme's show. He takes this ball of putty handed to him by Lumet, and he, along with his cast, molds it into a work of art that exposes the demons of so many unsettled families and struggling recovering addicts. He does not shy away from the pain and guilt felt by his characters, and instead holds on it. He forces them to bare their souls, and come to grips with issues that have been ignored for years. A distressing showcase, sure, but it needs to be in order for Demme to tell the story he wants to tell, the way he wants to tell it.

Much has been said about Anne Hathaway's de-glam transformation into Kym, many predicting an Oscar nomination. There is little resemblance of the starlet from this year's Get Smart, as she chops of her long locks, and becomes as unnattractive as someone as beautiful as her can be. It's such a difficult performance because it works on two seperate levels. There is the Kym that is the center of attention, who is loud, feisty, accusing all of her family members of paranoia, and taking advantage of all of the kindness people present to her. Then there is the Kym that is ignored, the one who watches the current attention-getter. This Kym is quiet, pouty, crippled by insecurity and fear of falling off the wagon. To pull off this balance and still be the one who carries the majority of the story is a load most young actresses with less talent probably could not handle.

To be sure, though, the film's performances work in an ensemble. Rosemarie Dewitt, known mostly for her work on television's Mad Men is terrific as Rachel, wanting to be supportive of her problem-sibling, but wanting the spotlight as well. Bill Irwin, an accomplished theater actor, is fantastic as the worry-wort father Paul, always looking over his shoulder to make sure Kym is okay, and constantly refereeing the infighting and arguments between the people he loves. Debra Winger returns from a four-year, big-screen hiatus with a powerhouse of a performance. In only a handful of scenes, she plays a character that is a subdued powder-keg, with a breakdown scene so electric and tragic, that it brings down the house.

The perfect adjective to describe this film is beautiful. It is certainly the best film Jonathan Demme has done since his masterpiece in Silence of the Lambs. This is an entirely different film, in terms of themes and plot, but both contain Demme's ability to deconstruct the psychology of incredibly nuanced and disturbing characters. Rachel Getting Married is seminal film in a lot of ways, for Anne Hathaway's film career, and hopefully a Jonathan Demme resurgence. It's a bone-bare film, much like last year's Away From Her. It has such faith in its characters to survive its meandering story structure, and pulls it off. No other film so far in 2008 is as striking and pragmatic.

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