RACHEL GETTING MARRIED (2008, directed by Jonathan Demme, 113 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
It is odd to see a director of the stature of Jonathan Demme fumbling around as awkwardly as he does in his latest film, Rachel Getting Married. Before the phenomenon of his Silence of the Lambs, Demme was known for creating quirky and well-observed characters as well as demonstrating a pulpy sense of excitement carried over from his years of making b-movies with RogerCorman. Since Lambs, Demme’s films have become increasingly turgid and self-important (like his two Philly-lensed pictures, Beloved and Philadelphia), so I was excited to hear of this return to his small-sized indie roots The film opens when Rachel’s sister Kym (former Disney princess Anne Hathaway) arrives straight from rehab for her sister’s wedding. We know by the way the family treats Kym that something more is wrong yet things also feel amiss with the very mechanics of this loose and improvised-seeming family drama.
Demme dedicates his film to Robert Altman and while it shares Altman’s long take/over-lapping dialogue directing style, first-time screenwriter JennyLumet’s (daughter of Sidney) conventional script does not have the satirical bite of the late master. Instead, this tale of actorly angst feels like cut-rate Cassavetes , letting scenes loiter leisurely on-screen before finally giving its characters ample rope to make public asses of themselves. With Kym newly sober, the whole family is on egg shells waiting for her to cause a ruckus until in a rambling rehearsal dinner toast Kym steals the bride’s thunder by revealing herself as a complete and open mess.
Of course this is red meat for a young actress itching to prove herself in an adult starring role but Demme is clueless on how to shape Hathaway’s performance, letting the discomfort build past excruciating and into a flailing acting class exercise. When a director can shape this sort of naturalism it accentuates a film’s intimacy. When these impulses are left unshaped you get a scene like the one here, where the groom and the bride’s father get into a real time contest over who can most efficiently load the dishwasher. The grandfatherly RogerCorman even makes an appearance in the film; couldn’t he have taken Demme aside and told him “Dishwasher Wars” is not a promising cinematic premise? What would be on the poster?
While the first half walks these characters through some predictable revelations, the final third takes place during the wedding reception, an elaborate multi-cultural extravaganza that entertainingly incorporates clothes, music and food from every corner of the world. Here, the family drama also swells as secrets are finally revealed (it’s nice to see actress Debra Winger re-emerge as Kym’s aloof mother, too bad she bares the brunt of the story’s bad vibes) while never slowing down the raging reception.
Unmentioned by any of the film’s characters, the wedding is a inter-racial one, with African American singer Tunde Adebimpe (of the band TV On the Radio) playing the upstanding groom. Watching this Connecticut family heartily welcome him into their family makes the film feel of-the-moment, channeling a sliver of the zeitgeist of Obama-mania. Demme makes this celebration undeniably infectious (Robyn Hitchcock – once the subject of a Demme documentary – pops in to perform, as well as Dancehall queen Sister Carol from Demme’s Something Wild), to the point where the melting pot spectacle begins to dwarf the thinly-plotted domestic dust-up. All this partying may propel you out of the theater on a high note but all that sweet icing won’t make you overlook how little meatDemme has given us to chew on. Age may have taught Demme how to throw a great party, too bad he has lost his knack of creating intriguing guests.