Tuesday, November 18, 2008
The Truth Hurts (& Heals): Rachel Getting Married
She thinks about it first. Then she gives in. She dances. For a moment, she even lets go. Then she stops, suddenly aware of herself. This is Anne Hathaway’s Kym at her sister’s wedding reception in Rachel Getting Married. And if you think this moment is incidental, think again. For the others shaking their booties under the tent, this dance is just like any other. But not for Kym. A drug addict on leave from a rehab clinic, Kym’s dance might as well be her first. Because this time she’s sober.
Jonathan Demme’s film about a woman trying to figure out who she is and where she fits in the world is filled with small but profound truths like this one. Sadly, many of them will go overlooked, because they are just that subtle, because you might need to know a little about addiction and recovery in order to spot them and because for all its brilliant understatement Jenny Lumet’s screenplay also includes moments when significance is jammed down our throats with a shovel. Yes, like its main character, the film’s faults are uncomfortably apparent and sometimes definitive. But more often than not Rachel Getting Married succeeds by doing what any recovering addict must: it forgoes the illusion of perfection and lives one moment at a time.
As the title suggests, the moments unfold around a wedding – an elaborate and yet intimate affair at Kym’s childhood home in Connecticut. Kym arrives from the inpatient clinic to a house abuzz with final preparations. She is embraced by a father (Bill Irwin) who believes that with nonstop enthusiasm he can will peace and harmony on his family’s present and past. She is greeted apprehensively by Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) who is eager to see her sister and yet fearful that Kym will eventually be replaced by a drug-fueled monster. She is treated with disdain by Rachel’s friend (Anisa George) who sees Kym as nothing more than a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Such is the sentence of a recovering addict. Kym’s image is constantly filtered through a prism of what she was before. And that includes the image Kym sees when she looks in a mirror.
This is how Rachel Getting Married stands out. Films showcasing family dysfunction and/or exploring the ills of addiction are easy to come by. Demme’s picture is special because it demonstrates the impact of addiction on an entire family. The film shines when scribbling its story in the margins, through glances unreturned, through conversations avoided and through truths left unsaid. Kym’s family history is one best felt intuitively, and we do. Their demons forever threaten to knock us off our feet like an undertow. Where the film gets into trouble is when it surrenders to the overt – a sister’s yearning for a sibling long gone, a father’s breakdown over a sentimental keepsake. These unfortunate episodes when Lumet communicates in all-caps defy the film’s otherwise overpowering emotional realism.
But on the whole, Rachel Getting Married thrives, in large part because it effortlessly evokes the truism that for so long eludes Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York. Indeed, life’s extras are stars of their own stories, and Lumet’s screenplay is populated by characters focused on their own plotlines. Kym can’t see beyond her tenuous sobriety and keeps waiting for some acknowledgment and support. Rachel has her life pointed toward a future with her soon-to-be husband, and she guards details of this transition to ensure that her sister remains an extra in this new act, instead of a supporting player. And then there’s Debra Winger’s Abby, Kym and Rachel’s quasi-estranged mother, who has such tunnel vision for her own storyline that she makes only a cameo appearance at Rachel’s wedding.
This is a film in which the characters seem to live beyond the frame, so it’s only fitting that the frame should move. Demme and cinematographer Declan Quinn capture the action in the all-too-familiar jerky hand-held style that feels like a tired indie cliché until it proves to be the natural choice. While the home-video aesthetic matches the wedding tableau, Demme’s camerawork helps us to identify with Kym: As her invisible travel companions, we are outsiders. Unwanted guests. Over time it becomes clear that the resentment of Kym has less to do with misbehavior past or present than with the way she changes the atmosphere of her surroundings. Kym is a black cloud, casting a shadow of heartbreak and angst into every room she enters, and the roving camera underlines the tranquil home’s vulnerability.
Prior to this film, you might not have expected that Hathaway had it in her to be a storm of doom, but her performance is entirely convincing. Hathaway owns Kym’s isolation, anger, shame and self-centeredness. At one end of the spectrum, Kym flashes childlike unease in the presence of her mother. At the other end, she disappears into the empowered serenity of her mandatory AA meetings – the one place Kym doesn’t have to carry the weight of an addict’s stigma. For a promising young actress still searching for her limits, the film is a showpiece. And yet the strongest performance might be that of DeWitt, who as Rachel gracefully rides the wave from bitter to joyful, from vindictive to nurturing. The treat is that Hathaway and DeWitt share so many scenes together. As well any film I can think of, Rachel Getting Married lays bare the tangled contradictions of sisterhood.
With that said, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that watching this film is a tumultuous experience. A handful of scenes are so uncomfortable that you’d be wise to avert your eyes. But unlike Noah Baumbach’s Margot At The Wedding, Demme’s film doesn’t revel in misery or dysfunction. At its core, Rachel Getting Married is hopeful – a hopefulness perhaps best exemplified by Rachel’s marriage, which bucks the cinematic cliché by presenting a couple that’s confidently in love from the moment we meet them right on through “I do.” How refreshing. In this film, discomfort is a transitional phase to something better. It’s a sign of growth. When the film begins, Kym has already seen an addict’s proverbial rock bottom, and so Lumet’s screenplay finds her at an arguably more awkward phase: the uphill climb. Before Kym can find out who she is in recovery, she must make peace with herself about who she was. The process is rarely pretty. But it’s honest.