A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank: #4


2008, R, 113 mins.

Kym: Anne Hathaway / Rachel: Rosemarie DeWitt / Abby: Debra Winger / Paul: Bill Irwin / Carol: Anna Deavere Smith

Directed by Jonathan Demme / Written by Jenny Lumet.

Is Jonathon Demme one of our least appreciated working directors?

I sure think so.  I would also add that he is arguably one of the most neglected film masters, but he now has managed to regain some of his lost luster by teaming up with a young actress to help nourish one of her one of her most punishingly emotional and transformative performances of her career, if not of 2008.  RACHEL GETTING MARRIED is nothing short of a glorious and inspired return to proud form for an often forgotten directorial maestro.

Demme’s film – arguably his single greatest since 1991’s THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS – contains individual moments of such raw, truthful, heartfelt, and brutal power that I found myself forgetting that I was watching a staged drama.  The film creates such a staggering level of stunning verisimilitude with its proceedings that you feel like you’re eavesdropping on all of the trials and tribulations – no matter how intimate and cruel – of the family within the story.  This is one of those exceptionally rare wedding films where I got completely and fully swept away and absorbed in the narrative and personas.  I typically reserve usage of the phrase “out of body film” for works that create such a systematic and densely realized imaginative world (like STAR WARS or WATCHMEN) or for period films that effortlessly evoke their respective time periods (like CINDERELLA MAN or CHANGELING), but RACHEL GETTING MARRIED is an all new innovative beast altogether.   

It’s a deceptively small and modest film, utterly void of the usual big budget and glossy Hollywood artifice and sheen (which Demme has successfully dabbled in), but it is RACHEL GETTING MARRIED’s preciseness with its stridently minimalist lack of style that made me forget that I was in the confines of a movie theatre.   I felt like I actually inhabited and participated in the lives of the film’s characters and relationships.  Sometimes the most memorable films are the most astutely observant of basic human behaviors.  Within a few scant minutes of immersing myself in Demme’s film, I found myself wholeheartedly surrendering to it; it so abundantly captures the tempo and flow of one long nuptial-filled weekend that, by the time it’s over, you swear that you were actually invited to it. 

People will either passionately love this film or vehemently despise its aesthetic choices.  I am strongly in the former category because I think that the film beautifully succeeds because of Demme’s choices.  Using a slightly veiled autobiographical script from writer Jenny Lumet (daughter of her director daddy, Sidney), Demme has crafted his most artistically meager – but intensely suggestive – films.    Instead of using elaborately constructed shots, telegraphed lighting cues, and other forms of movie fakery, Demme elected to shoot RACHEL GETTING MARRIED with a shaky, cinema verite style that will certainly turn lay filmgoers off.  Yet, it is his naturalistic, documentarian approach that is the key driver of the film’s universal dramatic notes.  The cameras here are mostly handheld, the lighting is all natural, and there is no hint of an orchestral music score.  The framing of the shots themselves show no rhythm or reason.  Yet, the film is able to craft such an undeniable spontaneity that very few staged dramas ever achieve.  If you allow yourself to capitulate to Demme’s disarming lack of artistic hubris in the film, then it becomes really easy to feel like an active participant in it, and not just a slack jawed, passive viewer.  Because of this intended effect, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED exhilarated me for how it allowed itself to unfold: you not only observe its nuances, you experience them. 

Beyond the film’s shatteringly provocative stylistic trappings (or lack there of), to watch RACHEL GETTING MARRIED is to witness the extraordinary transformation of a young actress into stunningly dark and emotional convoluted performance.  Anne Hathaway is an actress that I thought had little range beyond fluff pieces like the two PRINCESS DIARY films and THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA (although she has a few discretely strong moments in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN), but it is through Demme’s direction that this actress manages to abandon herself into a role that dives into the deepest and darkest recesses of a flawed, selfishly narcissistic, and self-imploding character.  Considering her relative career resume, loaded with stilted and light-hearted roles, it’s a triumphant joy to see Hathaway shed any semblance of ego and morph into a performance of quivering – and almost unbearable and cringe-worthy – dramatic truth.   

Hathaway plays Kym, who has just arrived home from a long and arduous stint in rehab.  She makes it one day before the wedding of her older sister, Rachel (played in the film’s equally textured and assured performance by Rosemarie DeWitt, in a breakout performance if there ever was one).  Kym is not one of those annoyingly warmed over and obnoxiously kind-hearted misfits that has occupied other family dramas so many countless times before: she is an almost impenetrably selfish, egomaniacal, and self-destructive junkie who has allowed drugs and alcohol to rip her to shreds since her teen years (and especially after a traumatic, life altering family event).  Nonetheless, Kym has been clean for nearly a year, but even her new lease on life has not really changed her that much.  She is still a somewhat cruel and unthinking creature that lets her self-centeredness get the better of her.  Even worse is how she goes out of her way to ensure that everyone around her feels her pain and desolation.  She is so freakishly biopolar that you are left thinking that no amount of sobriety will ever correct this frail women’s mental state.

Her relationship with her family is a laborious and grueling endurance test of will.  The dad (played thanklessly by Bill Irwin) is the poster boy for overprotective parents, who constantly swarms over Kym to defend and shelter her when good-natured people around him feel it's best to give up.  Kym’s initial visit starts off fairly well, and her reuniting with her sister is calmly poignant, but she throws a real scene in front of everyone when she discovers that Rachel has chosen her best friend, Emma (Anisa George) to be her maid of honor.  

Things, as you would guess, really snowball to depraved depths from hereon in.

Lesser film would have approached this material with a cookie cutter script that slavishly and mechanically goes from one beat to the next.  Fortunately, Demme and Lumet never fall victim to such pratfalls because they never really let the audience feel that they are ahead of the game.  The film is at its absolute dramatic apex when it explores the complexities and deep contradictions of Hathaway’s character, sometimes pausing on minute scenes that other dramas would not have time for.  Because of this, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED becomes bracingly honesty and steeped in such an authentic vivaciousness for how it lets you slip into the mindsets of its characters.  There are so many moments where you just don’t feel like your watching a movie, but a document of a family reeling with and trying to deal with harshly felt pain and resentment.   

Just look at one relatively early scene in the film that is also it’s most harrowing and – at times – unwatchable.  It occurs during on long wedding rehearsal supper where all of Rachel’s friends and family members stand up with a microphone and toast her and the husband-to-be.  We see Kym’s growing disillusionment with herself and her place within her family, not to mention growing gluttonously jealous of how much loving attention her sister is receiving.  In what has to be one of the movie’s great scenes of one character’s unbreakable self-absorption and insensitive conceitedness,  Kym grabs the microphone for one last toast and totally embarrasses herself in front of Rachel, her family, and her new in-laws by engaging in a unsettling monologue that showcases her character’s futile self-pity and pathetic alienation.  What’s crucial here is that Kym is never presented as a hopeful figure that will command respect and sympathy from the audiences; Lumet’s script and Hathaway’s deceitfully mean-spirited and duplicitous performance ensures us of that.  I loved how Kym never once plays nice to appease the sensibilities of viewers.  At times, she feels completely beyond redemption. 

However, as the film progresses small little snippets of Kym’s past are brought to the forefront, but they are never used as lame duck excuses to validate her tortuous and unforgivable behaviour.  As we get closer to the day of the wedding – and as Kym grows even more distancing from her sister and family – we discover the true origins of her decades-old battle with depression and abuse, which is driven home by a shocking confrontation with her semi-estranged mother (played by Debra Winger in a fierce and bitter performance).  As the film spirals towards a conclusion, which culminates with the wedding itself, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED never makes complete amends with Kym: she never fully emerges as someone to root for and like, but you nevertheless develop a modest level of understanding for what makes her tick.  The way the film drives home its truth and pathos is made all the more rousing with how Demme’s chaotic camera work and style – alongside Hathaway’s equally frenzied performance – reflects how life can be so categorical messy.  At its core, the film is a journey into how troubled souls try to fumble their way through revealing all of their insecurities with one another and themselves, and the results never really find that requisite level of rosy closure that typify many Hollywood genre films. 

Hathaway, as stated, is an incomparably breathtaking here as the volatile and seriously unstable Kym: it’s one of 2008’s most invigorating and transformative performances.  Yet, her astounding tour de force work here would never gel consistently without Rosemarie DeWitt to bounce scenes off of (her lack of an Oscar nomination is a shame).  DeWiit may have the toughest job between the pair for finding just the right manner of revealing her character’s own pent up insecurities with dealing with her disturbed sister.  She displays both love and compassion for her sister alongside a serious level of hostility and resentment for Kym’s awkward involvement in her nuptials (both sisters, ironically, feel like the walls of their respective worlds are closing in on them largely because of the meddling intrusiveness of each other).  The two other performance highlights belong to Bill Irwin as the father, who finds himself in a emotionally claustrophobic situation trying to find a healthy balance between honoring, respecting, and nurturing both of his daughters without playing favourites, and Debra Winger, who shows a wounded and quietly cruel detachment towards both of her daughters' lives. 

Everything in Jonathon Demme’s brilliantly and meticulously constructed RACHEL GETTING MARRIED unfolds with such powerful conviction.  At his own personal insistence of making the most “beautiful home movie ever made,” his undemanding and nominal style allows for the individual performances and their interactions to simmer with such a dynamic realism and cold veracity.  The characters that populate the film get under their own skins and those of the audience in ways that ostensibly scripted and manufactured films struggle with.  The ultimate accolade that I will bestow upon RACHEL GETTING MARRIED is that it – just about better than any other film in 2008 – cuts through the unnecessary layers and baggage that permeates so many dull and lethargic dramas and instead finds an emotional fullness even with its low reliance on film artifice.   Demme, one of the cinema’s finest and most versatile directors, further cements this praise by making RACHEL GETTING MARRIED feel like a film abundantly alive with its stark and uncompromisingly brutal honesty it gives its characters.  A film too polished and pristine looking would have completely undone the effect here: Demme understands that his uneven, disordered, and unsophisticated shooting style is precisely what is needed to both anchor this film’s level of intense realism alongside propelling viewers into its troubled  world.  Like all great artists, he has adapted to fit the needs of the material, and RACHEL GETTING MARRIED is certainly one of 2008’s most triumphant and endlessly enthralling films.  

It’s a hard film to leave behind and forget about once you’ve decided to become one of its guests.

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