Rachel Getting Married(10/23/2008)

            Politicians are always talking about family values, whatever that really means.  There are dozens of movies about the supposed strength of families, about parents losing all control to protect children, about families coming together in desperate situations.  Of course most of this is nonsense, when the chips are down blood usually isn’t as thick as most of these movies will have you believe.  Sometimes, there are going to be people you dislike, and happening to have the same parents as them isn’t always going to change that.  Rachel Getting Married is not a movie about “family values,” it isn’t idealized and it isn’t pretty.  It is, however, an incredibly honest movie; one that I think anyone can relate to on some level.

            Despite the title, the film’s central character is a woman name Kym (Anne Hathaway).  As the film begins Kym is leaving a rehab facility, seemingly for the first time in a while.  She’s going to be with her family for a week or so in order to attend her sister’s wedding.  Her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) seems excited to see her at first, so does her father Paul (Bill Irwin).  But Kym seems to start wearing out her welcome real quick, it becomes increasingly clear that the family holds more animosity toward Kym then they let on because of all the things she put them through while she was a drug addict.  As the weekend goes on the tensions continue to rise, and one begins to wonder if this family is ever going to come back together.

            One has to keep in mind, that this is a film that’s very much about its characters and the way they interact, it is less story driven than most films.  This is a film about an aftermath, about people living with the consequences of things that happened before the movie has started.  The plot description I’ve given is probably frustratingly vague; it had to be because Rachel Getting Married can potentially be a hard film to talk about without spoiling the experience.  A big part of why the film works so well is the way it slowly lets the audience in on this family’s troubled history over the course of the film, but not discussing some of this material makes it hard to really discuss the characters, and their various perspectives and motives.  I’m definitely not going to give anything away, but I will tell you that the film’s first act is not what it appears.  Jenny Lumet’s screenplay drops a bombshell on the audience about a third of the way into the movie which changes everything, forces the audience to rethink all the preceding scenes and fully clarifies everything that’s been going on between the characters.  This is not a plot twist of the M. Night Shyamalan kind, it doesn’t change the plot, but rather it changes things on a personal level, and it changes the audience’s perception of this family’s dynamic.

            The film was directed by Jonathan Demme, who’s probably best known as the filmmaker who brought us The Silence of the Lambs.  That Oscar winning film is not particularly representative of Demme’s body of work; his heart seems to be in independent filmmaking and in the world of low budget documentaries.  Demme is a filmmaker who seems to have a “one for them and one for me” mentality, making studio thrillers like The Truth About Charlie and The Manchurian Candidate (2004) between documentaries like The Agronomist and concert films like Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense and Neil Young: Heart of GoldRachel Getting Married is clearly one for the independent side of his cannon.

            The film is shot entirely on handheld digital cameras and I’m sure this was done for stylistic rather than budgetary reasons.  The film looks almost like a home movie, albeit one that is made very professionally, and this gives the viewer a subliminal sense that they are like one of the people in the crowd attending the wedding.  Bear in mind though, that this is an exercise in narrative Cinéma vérité, not mockumentary.  The camera is only supposed to look handheld, and one is not meant to think any actual character is filming everything.  The visual style is reminiscent of the Dogme 95 films that were going on in the last decade, except without the strict “rules” or the general whiff of pretension surrounding that movement. 

            Anne Hathaway was an actress who I hadn’t had much exposure to until now.  Aside from her relatively small role in Brokeback Mountain, I hadn’t seen a single one of her movies.  This performance, however, was a revelation; I’ll definitely be watching her work more closely from now on.  In the film Hathaway almost has to play two roles, as both the scarred Kym who has a profound sense of guilt about her past behavior, and the public Kym who uses sarcasm as a façade to block her more vulnerable side.  Rosemarie DeWitt also has a lot of work here; her character is just as complex as Kym in that she is torn about her feelings toward her sister.  Bill Irwin has a smaller role than either of them, but he’s also important and he’s also really good in the role.

            The film also excels at a form of acting that isn’t often appreciated: extras.  The whole movie is filled with bit or non-speaking parts that are vital to the film’s success.  Frequently the film requires the whole wedding party to perform at the same time in order to create a mood.  There’s a good example of this early on when the family and friends of the betrothed are going around and giving a toast to the couple, each giving appropriate tributes to the two.  There’s a really nice jovial feeling in the room, then Kym stands up and instead of focusing strictly on the soon to be wed couple she starts giving an update of her own condition.  Quickly the mood in the room changes and awkward looks come over all the extras, the sense of discomfort is palpable.  This type of wide raging ensemble work is a big part of what makes this movie work.  The film’s excellent ensemble, vérité style, and down to earth dialogue bring an amazing degree of reality to the whole movie.  The whole thing really does feel like a real wedding, it hasn’t been Hollywooded up at all. 

            The film’s trailer is clearly trying to make this look like the next Juno or Little Miss Sunshine, but that’s wishful thinking on the studio’s part, this is probably not going to cross over into the public as easily as those two did and it’s not really that similar to either of them.  Kym does have a somewhat Juno like attitude every once in a while, but that’s only 10% of the time, and it’s very clearly a defense mechanism rather than her real personality.  It’s even less like Little Miss Sunshine, in fact the two movie are almost exact opposites; LMS is about a family that seems dysfunctional but comes together when the chips are down, while Rachel Getting Married is about a family that seems perfectly cordial but which actually has deep tensions.  Instead I’d liken it to last year’s independent hit Once, except without the whimsy. 

            Rachel Getting Married is an amazing piece of work, one of Jonathan Demme’s absolute best.  There’s something almost voyeuristic in how the film works, the whole affair feels so real that the viewer really thinks he’s wandered into the wedding preparations for a family you don’t really know, but soon will.  There are no easy answers here, the film knows that these people’s problems aren’t going to be solved over the course of a mere weekend, and by the end you wonder if they’ll ever be solved.  The movie is ultimately about forgiveness, or lack thereof.  All of the characters need to find out whether they are truly willing to forgive Kym for her past, most of all herself.

**** out of Four

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