Rachel Getting Married (2008, Jonathan Demme)
It’s painful to question Jonathan Demme’s judgment, since he’s one of America’s absolute best filmmakers, but it’s hard not to when he spends the better part of a decade expending energy on remakes of Charade and The Manchurian Candidate. So on matters of technique and artistic urgency, it’s a relief to see Rachel Getting Married and his sealing of a comeback in narrative film. In its mise en scene and wily, fluid stylistics, Rachel is the director’s biggest score in countless years. His confidence is palpable in every frame, his camera movements elastic and never cloying, and he travels out on a limb from his tried-and-true hallmarks save his constant, unfailing humanism and respect for his characters. The only problem is that he’s applied this to a screenplay (by Jenny Lumet, daughter of Sidney) unworthy of his great enthusiasm — one that stands in the shadow of a far more sophisticated and well-crafted film with similar themes unfortunately released a year earlier, Margot at the Wedding. It’s likely a coincidence, but from Margot Demme inherits a gracefully languid realism, but the inevitable comparison is fatal. Margot had enough dimension and content to be a great novel; Rachel in turn feels half-finished and depressingly one-dimensional, despite brilliant direction and acting.
It’s best, then, to concentrate upon what’s lovely and ingratiating here. Robyn Hitchcock, one of many music industry associates of Demme’s appearing in the film (Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio portrays the groom and performs a bravura Neil Young cover), stated that shooting Rachel was like being part of an actual wedding — the sumptuous verité multicamera methods feed a feeling of truth and obtuse, personal beauty — to the point that the story feels like a distraction from the palpably lived-in atmosphere. That story is: Kym (Anne Hathaway, in an improbably assured turn) is a recovering alcoholic in a rehab center who takes temporary leave to attend her sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) Rachel’s wedding, resulting in the expected frayed quarrels and dysfunctional fallouts, albeit in this case with the rather artificial reasoning shoehorned in of Kym’s long-standing depression and strained relationship with her divorced parents and sister an outgrowth of her accidental killing (in a car accident) of her brother — which was a result of her being stoned, a haze she’s spent years in. The problems come to a head with a physical altercation between Kym and her mother (Debra Winger, a joy to see again but given little to do), after which there’s another car accident! And suddenly everyone’s OK again save Kym and mom Abby, long enough for the protracted and admittedly quite beautiful ceremony.
Real-time scoring, natural lighting, and the basic effect of a lovingly spontaneous and gentle familial gathering make the lengthy wedding scene the reason to see Rachel Getting Married; there’s not much story to speak of, but its embrace of classic Demme warmth is a wonderfully far cry from The Deer Hunter (but for a similarly glorious evocation of a wedding that is actually a disaster, see Melancholia). Each time Demme travels back to Hathaway’s face and her continued emotional journey, it seems an awkward interlude, though in the last act when she reconvenes with sister and groom and attempts a reconciliation with her mother, the script is suddenly strong enough to stand up to the director’s phenomenal work, the splendidly subtle closure or absence thereof rendering the ending (Kym’s departure and Rachel’s morning after) lyrical and lovely.
But it’s too little, too late after Lumet and Demme have spent so much time giving the characters so little direction and depth. Hathaway nails Kym’s addictive personality and darkness nicely, but the film justifies it all too neatly, choosing to upend every emotional point with too much rationalization and directness, which kind of trivializes the nature of depression and disorder — the things Kym’s working valiantly through while her family attempts to understand and support her. It’s an even bigger gaffe to introduce the matter of the dead brother, wrapping up the thorny nature of Kym and Rachel’s relationship too neatly, as if depression itself isn’t enough of a “thing” to wedge between them, as if weddings of the size aren’t automatically fraught enough anyway (one thinks of the “I can’t do everything” rant in About Schmidt), and as if it isn’t perfectly believable for a father to dote on one child more than another without even realizing it (a major source of conflict), as if two sisters wouldn’t hate each other sometimes anyway without the introduction of all these neatly wound-up issues. It’s typically easy to rail against a movie about characters doing things for no reason, but when it comes to depression and addiction, logic shouldn’t play the kind of role this film seems to want it to; for that reason, it suffers mightly compared to Lars Von Trier and Noah Baumbach’s takes on the matter.
Still, at least one sequence earlier in the film that’s a vital story point and a component of the badly tacked-on morbid backdrop makes it worthwhile in the grand scheme, as it’s one of the best things Demme’s ever put together — and Lumet is to be commended for its originality and sideswipe of devastation. Rachel and Kym’s dad Paul (Bill Irwin, giving what’s probably the finest and most deeply wounded performance of the picture) dotes on his dishwasher a lot, leading to a deliriously silly competition with groom Sidney (Adebimpe) regarding who can fill it up more quickly. Silly, right? But also the kind of crazy dumb thing that would actually happen between these two in the leadup to a wedding, a loving but tentative bond and a bit of implicitly fucked-up competition. Kym gets caught up in the moment, one of the only times we see her outside of herself and happy, and when Paul begins to win the dishwasher game, she starts feeding him more plates to add to the machine; as he cheerfully takes them, his smile fades for reasons we’re not privy to at first, and the countdown and game fizzle out unceremoniously. Clearly upset, he takes leave, and only after do we understand when we see that one of the plates belonged to Ethan, the deceased son, leading to a further crush and the bubbling up of dormant grief; feeling understandably like shit, Kym’s comforted only by a brief reassuring touch from Sidney before he departs to rejoin his new life in progress, Rachel left to fester in a permanently swirling past. It’s an almost ridiculously well-mounted scene, believable and sad, and as flawlessly shot and acted as anything in the collective illustrious careers of all involved. If only the rest of the film could stand up remotely to it, could justify its thornier ideas without flabby dramatics and unwarranted turnarounds. Rachel Getting Married remains an interesting and occasionally sublime film, but it could have been so, so much more.