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Worth A Look: 27.59%
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3 reviews, 11 user ratings

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Rachel Getting Married
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Slightly Better Than "Fool's Gold"
5 stars

If I were sitting down to pen a history of American filmmaking in the Eighties and needed to name who I felt was the most exciting and dynamic talent to flower during that period despite the seemingly permanent shift to soulless blockbusters with nary a personal touch to be had, my choice would almost certainly be Jonathan Demme. After spending the Seventies building his career in the same manner of many filmmakers of that time--a brief excursion in the world of low-budget exploitation filmmaking under the aegis of Roger Corman (“Caged Heat,” “Crazy Mama” and “Fighting Mad,” all of which turned out to be smarter and more thoughtful than their titles and ad campaigns may have suggested), a well-regarded personal film that failed to catch on with the public (“Handle With Care”) and a compromised studio project over which he had little control (“Last Embrace”)--he kicked off the new decade with a string of films--”Who Am I This Time?,” “Swing Shift,” “Stop Making Sense,” “Something Wild,” “Swimming to Cambodia” and “Married to the Mob”--that were quirky, funny, touching, toe-tapping , dramatically surprising and which demonstrated a genuine sense of empathy for the oddballs and outsiders who simply weren’t cut out for mainstream America. Of those films, there is not one that I would not gladly drop everything to watch again right now--even the bastardized version of “Swing Shift” that was released after being reedited by star-producer Goldie Hawn is better than its reputation suggests--and the delirious Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense” and the alternately joyous and terrifying “Something Wild” are among the greatest films to emerge from the entire decade.

In a bizarre twist worthy of one of his own films, this period came to a conclusion in the most unexpected manner possible when his 1991 screen adaptation of the grisly serial killer thriller “Silence of the Lambs” became one of the most popular and influential films of its era, won a slew of Academy Awards (including a Best Director nod for Demme) and launched him into the top tier of American filmmakers. In a strange and sad twist of fate for cineastes everywhere, Demme seemed to lose the nerviness and ambitiousness of his early work and his subsequent efforts--the noble-but-bland drama “Philadelphia,” the noble-but boring Oscar bait “Beloved” and the noble-but-unnecessary remakes “The Truth About Charlie” and “The Manchurian Candidate”--were workmanlike efforts that had the occasional graceful moment or two reminiscent of better days but which were, for the most part, so completely unassuming that they frankly could have been made by any reasonably competent craftsman. (At this point, I should note that these criticisms do not extend to the often-brilliant documentaries that he made as sort of an alternate career path during this time, such as “Cousin Bobby,” “Storefront Hitchcock,” “The Agronomist,” “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” and “Jimmy Carter, Man From Plains.”) None of these films were total dogs (though “Beloved” came mighty close) but any film fan familiar with Demme’s career when he was working below the radar must have despaired during this time over whether or not he would ever again make a project that would match the ambitions of the quirky-cool classics of his heyday. Now Demme has returned with his latest work, the exquisite comedy-drama “Rachel Getting Married” and it is as if the last 15-odd years of tentative filmmaking never happened. This exploration of rage and recovery and of hurt and healing is not just his most thematically, emotionally and narratively ambitious project since the masterpiece that was “Something Wild,” it could well be the best thing that he has done since then.

Although it is Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) who is getting married at the sprawling Connecticut home belonging to her father (Bill Irwin) and his second wife (Anna Deavere Smith) over the eventful weekend depicted here, it is her deeply troubled sister Kym (Anne Hathaway) who is the film’s central character. A longtime junkie and drama queen, Kym has spent the last decade in and out of rehab and, as the film opens, is leaving her latest stint (nine months and counting) to return home for the festivities. Although everyone tries to pretend that nothing is askew--Dad continually proffers food to everyone and the two sisters giggle while reminiscing over old sex fantasies involving Elvis Stojko--but before long, it becomes clear that Kym’s constant need to make her suffering a public spectacle and Rachel’s long-simmering resentment over the ways in which Kym’s dysfunctions have essentially dominated her family over the past decade are going to boil over before too long. The first hint comes when Kym discovers that Rachel has chosen her best friend since childhood, Emma (Anisa George) to serve as her maid of honor--considering that she didn’t know if Kym would even be able to show up, you can hardly blame her--and puts up a stink about it until Rachel finally caves in and gives her the prized role. The second comes during the rehearsal dinner when Kym gets up to make a toast and instead goes off on a long, rambling and cringe-worthy tear on her own struggles with rehab topped with an obsequious attempt to publicly make amends with Rachel for the hurts that she has caused--a nice sentiment, though kind of meaningless since she never actually gets around to apologizing for anything.

The rehearsal dinner is pretty much the standout sequence of the entire film, though the volcanic confrontation between Kym and her mother (Debra Winger) is pretty hair-raising as well, and what is so great about it--and, by extension, Demme’s filmmaking approach--is that it doesn’t develop along the expected lines. The notion of a self-appointed truth-teller ruining a family gathering in the most self-aggrandizing manner possible is something that we have seen before in such films as “The Celebration” and “Margot at the Wedding.” In those films, however, such scenes came across as heavy-handed emotional shock sequences in which we were supposed to simply smirk at all the stuffed shirts and complacent clods being torn to emotional ribbons by someone with an axe (real or imaginary) to grind. This time around, when Kym goes off on her rant, Demme’s focus is less on seeing the guests reacting with shock and surprise to what she is saying and more on showing a certain empathy for her as her words spiral further and further out of control. At this point in the proceedings, Kym has pretty much come across as an unlikable train wreck but as she goes on and on, completely oblivious to how she is coming off, the scene offers us the first glimpse of the hurt and wounded human being behind the angry girl façade. In her own half-assed way, she really is trying to come to terms with her past and reconnect with her family--she just doesn’t have the slightest sense of how to go about it. By making her real vulnerabilities the focus of the scene, Demme not only humanizes what could have simply been a few minutes of snaky bitterness, he also helps set the stage for the various confrontations that follow between Kym and her family, each of whom has their own difficulties in trying to cope with her and the damage she has wrought over the years.

What is fascinating about “Rachel Getting Married” is that, unlike a lot of other films of this type, it is not especially interested in milking the dramatic revelations to come for maximum soap-opera effectiveness. Instead, Demme and screenwriter Jenny Lumet are more interested in mining the scenes for the off-hand rhythms of real-life behavior and the emotional truths of the material rather than the melodramatics. We do learn about the particulars of what helped drive Kym to her decade of self-destructiveness but these revelations are treated in such a low-key and off-hand manner that it becomes clear that neither Demme nor screenwriter Jenny Lumet are especially concerned with milking them and other story elements for maximum dramatic impact. Instead, they are more concerned with creating fully-fleshed characters and letting us see these developments through their eyes without ever telling us what we should be thinking or feeling about them. At the same time, Lumet’s screenplay, her first, is still a dazzling bit of writing that strikes an impressive balance between comedy and tragedy without ever tipping too far in any one direction and never unfolds in the manner that we expect.

Going into the film, there is the presumption that because she is the central character, we should be sympathizing with Kym right from the start but in the early scenes, she comes across as such a pill that we find ourselves unconsciously siding with the rest of her family at certain points. (One of the funniest moments comes immediately after the rehearsal toast when Rachel, who is annoyed at Kym hijacking yet another family event with her drama, interrupts the subsequent argument with a bit of one-upping that finally brings the focus back to her and leaves Kym sputtering about how unfair it is.) As the film progresses, we anticipate the inevitable cathartic moment where everything comes out at once and everyone suddenly feels better as a result--here, the long-standing conflicts and resentments do not magically fade away just before the end credits roll and there is the sense that while some breakthroughs may have occurred, Kym still has a long way to go with her recovery. And towards the end, just at the point when the story has reached its darkest moments and it seems as if there is no way that it can possibly recover in a way that is at all believable, the film manages to do just that with an extended wedding sequence that is as joyous a bit of filmmaking that you are likely to see on a movie screen this year--a dazzling multicultural event featuring bridesmaids in sari, Neil Young lyrics for the wedding vows, musical performances from the likes of Demme favorites Sister Carol and Robyn Hitchcock and Roger Corman skulking around in the background--and yet, the darkness and uneasiness is still never far from the surface during this set-piece, as is shown in its quietly devastating conclusion.

As good as “Rachel Getting Married” is on paper, it is through the sublime performances of its extraordinarily talented ensemble cast that truly brings it to life. Although Anne Hathaway has quickly become one of the most engaging screen presences in recent years, she hasn’t really had much of an opportunity (outside of the misfired “Havoc,” where she spent too much time trying to shed the goody-goody persona she acquired from the “Princess Diaries” films and “Brokeback Mountain,” where she was saddled with the least interesting character in the film) to really show the dramatic chops that would allow people to take her seriously as an actress but after seeing her fierce and forceful work here, it is unlikely that will ever happen again. She so completely disappears into the walking raw nerve that is Kym that she simply becomes her. She comes across as angry, hurtful, hateful, tragic, tender and strangely sympathetic--often at the same time--and does so with such conviction that all remaining memories of her tiara-wearing days will be put to rest for good. As her sister, Rosemarie DeWitt (perhaps best known to you from her work on “Mad Men”) more than holds her own against Hathaway--she manages to create the sense of a genuine familial relationship, both good and bad, with her on-screen sister that both cements the story as a whole and announces her as a significant new talent. In the role of their dad, Bill Irwin may seem a little too silly at first glance with his constant offerings of food and his insistence at putting a happy face on everything but as the film goes on, his performance becomes deeper and darker as we realize that these are his coping mechanisms and when he finally does break down, it makes for a truly wrenching moment. As for Debra Winger, making one of her rare film appearances since largely bolting the business in the mid-1990s, her brief but brilliant work reminds us of what a considerable talent she is and how much it has been missed over the last decade or so. She doesn’t come into the picture until about a third of the way in and then only crops up sporadically from that point on but when she does appear, she strides onto the screen with the confidence of a heavyweight champion stepping into the ring and the moment is so electric that you can’t take your eyes off of her. From then on, she subtly dominates the proceedings even when she isn’t on-screen and her two confrontations with Hathaway--a bruising no-holds-barred showdown and a quieter, though no less devastating face-off later on--are so intense and harrowing that it will be a long time before most viewers will be able to shake them. This is a great performance from a great actress and I hope that it encourages Winger to work a little more often--God knows that we could use her.

Because it tells a story that takes viewers to some dark and uncomfortable places and because it doesn’t offer up a conventional ending in which everyone’s problems magically disappear in the blink of a rewrite, there is the chance that some viewers may choose to skip “Rachel Getting Married” because of fears that it might be “too depressing.” To these eyes, a depressing movie is one that is dramatically and artistically bankrupt--the kind that tells the same old story in the same old manner with such a lack of enthusiasm that you wonder why the people involved with its production even bothered to show up on the set every morning. By comparison, “Rachel Getting Married” is a film in which every single scene is throbbing with life and excitement and while some of those moments are wrenching, they are too authentic to be dismissed or ignored and they are balanced out by other moments of tremendous good cheer and feeling. By those standards, “Rachel Getting Married” is anything but depressing and anyone who avoids it because it seems too grim for them should realize that by doing so, they will be missing a film that is the first great movie of the season, the long-overdue comeback of a great filmmaker and one of the very best films of the year.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17752&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/10/08 00:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/14/10 Samantha P Hathaway is great in this, real people with problems, very well done 5 stars
11/15/09 art HATHAWAY"S BATHTUB SCENE IS THE ONLY HIGHLIGHT,as far as i'm concerned! 3 stars
11/01/09 jcanthony As bored as I've been watching a movie in a long time. 2 stars
9/11/09 BTC An authentic, beautiful movie. Hathaway, DeWitt, and Winger are flawless. Heartbreaking. 5 stars
8/06/09 Simon Primary flaw is indeed dragged-on festivities; but the rest is refreshingly raw, human film 4 stars
3/17/09 jim loved the naturalistic chaos, like a real messy family 5 stars
3/15/09 g. incredibly annoying 1 stars
3/12/09 George (DUKE) overrated...Annes best role...party crap....too long and boring 2 stars
3/11/09 Brandon Allin Decent movie. Nice review. 3 stars
12/02/08 jcjs33 film connaisseur's dream..perfect movie..genius choreographed scenes..real..great theater 5 stars
10/29/08 Sully Good music whine, music music music whine whine music whine music 4 stars
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  03-Oct-2008 (R)
  DVD: 10-Mar-2009


  DVD: 10-Mar-2009

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