‘Rachel’: The elephant in the room

October 4, 2008

 

 

Ah, the tyranny of families – where would drama be without it?

 

From Oedipus to O’Neill and beyond, the one association in our lives over which we have absolutely no control is always the richest in terms of emotional complexity – whether that family is a nurturing sanctuary or a hectic minefield.

 

Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married” jumps squarely into the minefield portion of the equation, even as it offers moments of grace. These people just might be able to help save each other – and themselves – if they don’t get blown up first.

 

Working from Jenny Lumet’s beautifully expressive and nuanced screenplay, Demme has constructed what he refers to in the press notes as “the most beautiful home movie ever made” with cinematographer Declan Quinn. The handheld cameras and improvised feel smack of John Cassavetes in the best possible way: vital, urgent, unexpectedly funny, ineffably sad.

 

Anne Hathaway, working with raw nerves exposed, plays Kym Buckman, first glimpsed being retrieved from a rehab center by her father, Paul (Bill Irwin). She smokes avidly, talks nervously – hey, she may be able to recite the “Serenity Prayer” in her sleep but she is hardly at peace.

 

Once she gets to the Connecticut manse where she grew up and where her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) will get married that weekend, she and her family are revealed to be like magnets – so much alike that they push each other apart, when they aren’t coming together in an irresistible embrace. Kym is filled with guilt for a life wasted being wasted, and her family wants to forgive her, but can’t quite – at least not completely. They’ve been burned too many times by her slips and stumbles.

 

There are one or two revelations during the weekend: one that surprises the family, the others meant to inform the audience about why Kym and her family are the way they are. But there’s no huge explosion that blows everything up so that the participants can rebuild from scratch – and certainly no moment that threatens to sabotage or torpedo the wedding or to bring Kym’s family into conflict with that of Rachel’s fiancée, Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), who are African-Americans from Hawaii. (Why the wedding has an East Indian motif is never explained. Just quirky, I guess.)

 

The beauty of Demme’s film is that there’s no big “a-Ha!” moment in which the Buckman family’s “problem” is explained. Yes, there was a tragedy that still haunts them all, but that was neither the beginning nor the end of why this family has such prickly relationships.

 

Instead, Demme puts the viewer into the position of being a wedding guest for this weekend, immersing you in the family and slowly letting the scars and bruises come into view. You never get the whole picture, just glimpses – such as the way the sisters relate to their mother, Abby (Debra Winger), now divorced from their father. There’s a distance there, a sense of remove – but, again, nothing needs to be explained that can’t be deduced.

 

At the core of the film is the notion of sisterhood and the push/pull between Kym and older sister Rachel. Rachel is an incipient Ph.D. psychologist with a long memory for Kym’s transgressions – but also an unquenchable sense of protectiveness for her sibling. She loves her, when she isn’t ready to strangle her. It’s the kind of thing that last year’s unfairly maligned “Margot at the Wedding” dug at as well, in a more antic and obviously sharp-elbowed way.

 

It’s not giving away anything important to point out that Kym doesn’t slip into relapse during the weekend. The substance abuse – as it always is – was just a symptom of something else, an attempt to muffle, muzzle or otherwise numb her to the pain and insecurity of her own life.

 

Her problems come out during a Narcotics Anonymous meeting she attends, during which she talks about her worst transgression as an addict (though obviously not her bottom-out moment, since it happened when she was 16 and she’s obviously in her 20s). But this is a movie that doesn’t want to show the miracle of 12-step programs; rather, it’s about just how long, slow and hard a process that is.

 

Demme won the Oscar for 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs.” Since then, he’s only directed four features: “Philadelphia,” the difficult “Beloved,” the misguided “The Truth about Charlie” (even Mark Wahlberg joked about how bad it was on a recent episode of “Entourage”) and the serviceable “Manchurian Candidate” remake. His best films in the past 25 years have been documentaries, both political (“The Agronomist”) and musical (the glowing “Neil Young: Heart of Gold”). With “Rachel Getting Married,” he returns to the looser sense of story-telling that made earlier films (such as “Melvin & Howard” and “Something Wild”) so beguiling.

 

But this one works even better because, as is so rarely the case in contemporary film, form follows function. Demme is telling a story, not creating a construct. Yes, there’s a style here, but it’s in service of the script, rather than an adjunct to it.

 

He also has a cast capable of staying in the moment, of finding the right emotional notes without having to draw focus. Hathaway, in particular, proves that there’s more to her than the ingénue of “The Devil Wears Prada” and even “Becoming Jane.” (Let’s not mention “Get Smart” for the good of everyone involved.) She makes Kym someone so brittle that you expect her hair to break off in pieces – yet so resilient that she is able to roll with the 12-step doctrine. There’s a desperation to her narcissism, a fear of disappearing that she claws and scratches to overcome.

 

DeWitt, who played Don Draper’s bohemian girlfriend on the first season of “Mad Men,” has the marvelous ability to harden in an instant – and to melt with equal alacrity. Her defense mechanisms against her sister’s drama are finely honed but DeWitt reveals her vulnerability as well.

 

Yes, Demme lets the home-movie aspect go a little too far, particularly during a seemingly endless rehearsal dinner. It has a real feel – so real that you want to start drinking to make all of this enthusiastic sentimentality go down easier. Still, it works as a contrast to Kym’s toast, which manages to be painfully funny, even as it deflates the crowd’s good mood.

 

“Rachel Getting Married” is terrific movie-making: smart, emotional, compelling, surprising. There’s little wasted motion and great Altmanesque subtlety to the interplay. Here’s a wedding that gives the audience a gift.

 

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