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.


Fox said...

I like how you describe the camera style as making us feel like unwelcolmed guests. Very much so! Even sometimes when it irritates a bit, and you may want a focus or a pause - but you don't get it - I imagine that's what Demme was aiming for.

And I think you pinpoint what bothered me about Lumet's script. You say:

These unfortunate episodes when Lumet communicates in all-caps defy the film’s otherwise overpowering emotional realism.

I agree. Especially when you bring up the father getting upset over the plate. In a film with so many subtleties - subtleties that feel true - this moment feels really forced. (Would that plate still be in there with the other dinner plates?).

Perhaps if Demme/Lumet brushed by it, it woulda worked, but they turned that object into the central point of a scene and it pushes the drama into TV land, I think.

Jason Bellamy said...


Fox: The plate scene is the biggest misstep. I have no problem with the plate being there. It seems that it's hidden away in a separate stack of plates than the one the family entertains with. Fine. But the breakdown is false. In every other scene, the father puts on his most optimistic face, even in private family moments. He absorbs the pain of others. In the scene in which Rachel accuses him of coddling Kym, he doesn't even take offense. He just tries to stop the argument. This guy might have a breakdown over the plate when alone. That might have made for a nice scene, perhaps when he's alone UNLOADING the dishwasher the next morning and sees the plate that he hadn't noticed in the hysteria of the competition the night before. But he'd never have that moment in front of guests. Never. Wouldn't happen.

Also false is the moment when Rachel says that she wishes her brother were there. Look, I haven't lost a sibling, so maybe I'm incorrect about this. But her brother has been gone for a few years. And he never reached an age where you'd expect a deep friendship (a bond, yes, but not a friendship) between him and his oldest sister. Not to mention that weddings are by nature adult affairs. So it's not as if Rachel feels a lack without a toast from her brother, because he never reached an age where she could have imagined what that toast would sound like. I'm not trying to diminish the tragedy. But it's a moment Lumet twists the knife to make sure we feel the family's pain.

And, yeah, these missteps are especially frustrating because so much of the film relies on subtlety. It draws us in, asks us to pay close attention. So the transitions to these moments of blatant emotion are jolting -- almost like when a really dark scene in a film is followed by one shot in bright light, causing us to turn our heads and squint until our eyes can adjust.

Still, especially in a very forgettable movie year, this film is something to hold on to. I need to schedule a second viewing.

Joel Bocko said...

I wasn't all that interested in seeing this film, but your review has made me very curious indeed. Interesting you bring up Margot at the Wedding - which I hated - I was wondering, given the subject matter and apparently the similarity in camera style - if the two had much in common.

Unknown said...

Another insightful, intelligent review!

I was looking forward to seeing this film for quite some time. However, the movie is so painful and uncomfortable that I would find it hard to recommend it to anyone. By creating as realistic an atmosphere as possible Demme seemed to suck the film of any real entertainment value. I know what he was trying to do and, to some extent, he pulled it off. When I drove down to the Bijou that night, I had no idea I would be attending both a rehearsal dinner and an actual wedding. No doubt, he created that with his direction. But in the end, it just felt a bit too empty for me. A melodrama of dialogue and set pieces.

I also agree with the plate scene. It feels out of place and just doesn't work.

Richard Bellamy said...

Cooler - An excellent post about a film that is essentially difficult to write about. What rings true? What doesn't?

It feels real - and the hand-held style made me respond with, "Oh, crap, not again! I don't see the world that way! When I look, it doesn't wobble!" But, you know, you're right. It worked here. I felt like a guest - and I felt like a guest during the toasts at the rehearsal dinner - I felt, "Why don't some of these people cut it short" - yet that was part of what made it real.

Thus, there are moments that feel real, and then some that don't ring true. For me, the worst moment in the film was this - Kym just happens it get a hair-do not just from a guy who was in her group therapy - but a guy who happened to read her confessional during one of the exercises and reveals the embarrassing lies that Kym fabricated. Then Rachel runs out without getting her hair done! That sequence deserved the cutting room floor.

The hidden plate: It was extremely contrived for the plate to appear in the midst of the joyous dishwasher-loading competition, but I'm not so sure the father's reaction wasn't a real one. I felt the set-up was contrived, but I feel his reaction was real. Yes, here's a guy that is so controlled, who uses his energy to smooth over all discord, but perhaps he has the sense that people don't consider him healthy, that they worry he hasn't mourned, and so he puts it on for everyone to see that he is sorrowful - and actually there's an uncomfortable awkwardness that makes it seem like a display for all to see, "Look, everyone, I feel the pain too, not just Rachel, not just Kym." I've seen people do this. Bad plot device. But, I feel, a realistic reaction for the father.

That's how this is a difficult film to evaluate. What's the truth in a situation like this? I think we evaluate according to our experience, and according to my experience, that breakdown moment was awkward and uncomfortable to watch, but it felt real. When Kym reproaches her mother for leaving her with the boy, and the mother launches out and hits Kym, is that real? It felt real - others might consider it too melodramatic.

But the film's flaws are outweighed by its strengths. It was a fine, well-made, well-performed film that was refreshing to watch in this downer film year. Hathaway was superb - so was DeWitt (you could see her conflicted desire to have her sister present at the wedding, all the while hoping her sister can just keep her mouth shut and kind of be invisible.)

I especially enjoyed Hathaway - a young actress who has come a long way from "The Princess Diaries." I identified with her feeling outcast because of the pain she bore. I loved it when she was offered the public relations job. "Unfortunately, the public's afraid of me." That line goes down with "Let me put a smile on that face" as my one of my favorite movie lines of the year.

Jason Bellamy said...

Boe: Thanks for the comment. Not that I can't understand why you'd find it to be "a melodrama of dialogue and set pieces," but I'm curious: had you seen the trailer before you went to the movie? In reading some other bloggers' reviews, at least two mentioned that the film isn't as uplifting as the trailer implies. I was fortunate in that I hadn't seen the trailer going in, so I didn't have any expectations. But I've seen the trailer since, and while it reveals too much it manages to feel pretty misleading. Not sure the marketing folks did the movie any favors.

Hokahey: Interesting. I agree that the whole hair episode should have been cut (no pun intended). But I can squint and call that odd luck. I still don't buy the plate scene, despite your defense; you've argued a good case, but it doesn't ring true for me.

That said ... and we're still working in spoilers here ... you sum up perfectly the mother-daughter mini-brawl. As I watched it, I was instantly aware that some people just wouldn't buy it (interesting, because they wouldn't have batted an eye if it was a father and son), and yet it felt entirely true to me as it happened.

Unknown said...

Hadn't seen the trailer before or since but now I am intrigued. I took issue with the long, clever rehearsal dinner and the cutesy, overly kitchy wedding ceremony. I would have found it more interesting if everyone in the movie wasn't so darn clever and the wedding wasn't so silly. Color me a cynic but after the first 10 minutes, I think I expected it to feel more real than it did. Again, great review!...Also, I'm a huge Charlie Kaufman fan and I don't know if I'm less likely or more likely to see "Synecdoche, New York" after your review. Good stuff.

Craig said...

Well, I won't belabor why I hated this movie: you make a valiant defense of it. and I'd buy the impact of Kym on her family if I believed in the family for a minute. Individually all the actors are solid, but it's really only Debra Winger (as it often is) who seems truly believable. That moment late in the picture when she says her goodbyes to everyone and won't look directly at Kym for the longest time is one of the few that felt true to me. Then again, maybe Rachel's clan looks more authentic compared to Sidney's, whose depiction I found ostensibly complimentary but actually condescending. Do they all have to walk around with halos over their heads? It's further evidence that Demme has a big heart and sushi for brains.

Guess I did belabor the point. And maybe just one more about the camerawork: Owen Gleiberman had a brilliant insight in his review of one of the Bourne movies (all of which I like a lot), where he quoted Hitchcock's observation after seeing Jaws that Spielberg was the first filmmaker "who doesn't see the Proscenium arch," and then Gleiberman himself went on to say that Paul Greengrass not only doesn't see the arch, he doesn't even see the stage. Greengrass always uses his jittery camera with a deft sense of purpose, whereas his imitators (much like Tarantino's) mimic the style yet miss the point. You could make a good case for justifying Demme's style in Rachel, and you did, but to me it's becoming an exercise in laziness. Recently I caught up with the first two seasons of The Wire, and I was surprised by the absence of jitters. Every frame of every episode is elegantly, classically composed, and prove that the classical style can still draw you in.

Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: Glad to have you belaboring! Some thoughts in response:

Well, Kym's family works for you or it doesn't, I suppose. So I won't try to argue you into my view. That said, let's talk about Sidney's family for a second. I saw a few reviews that went along with your line of thinking. One went so far as to suggest that the film is borderline racist for presenting the black family as if they're tribal mystics. Here's my take: Sidney and family seem saintly because they're undeveloped. And they're undeveloped because that's the way most weddings are: you know one family and not the other. Sidney's family is simply on its best behavior amidst wedding festivities, which isn't so unusual. And, really, save Kym, so is Rachel's family ... except when behind closed doors. Remove Kym and edit out the private moments, and I think both families are treated somewhat glowingly.

As for the camera: I think it works here, but in general I totally agree with you. And the truth is that "Rachel" could have been told without the hand-held just as well. The characters, the acting and the emotion would still come through. In this case, I'm not ready to call the hand-held lazy or somehow fraudulent (wannabe). But it isn't profound either.

(And I need to see "The Wire.")