Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Rachel Getting Married (2008)

2008’s Rachel Getting Married is a drama about a group of upper-class New Englanders coming to terms with their past during the wedding of the family’s eldest daughter. It’s a movie where the cliches are rolled out one after another. Parental divorce, addiction, sibling rivalry, a death that’s never been properly confronted-- it’s all here, and very little of it is even presented in any way that complicates what we’ve already come to expect from this type of film. The only unexpected thing about Rachel Getting Married, then, is how unusually well director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Jenny Lumet (daughter of Sydney) make these old standards operate within the framework of their story. For its first half, the movie almost works well enough to restore faith in the power of the dysfunctional family melodrama, but it quickly loses steam an ends up more like an updated version of Ordinary People with music. Lots and lots of music.

The story, as expected, is pretty simple. Kym (Anne Hathaway), a young woman with a history of drug abuse, is let out of her latest rehab institution for the weekend to attend her sister Rachel’s wedding. Conflict ensues, of course, and over the course of a very long few days a number of familial issues are brought to light and confronted. Where the movie works where so many of its kind fail, at least in the early running, is in the way that the conflict manifests itself. When Kym shows up at the house, we expect her to barge in like a force of nature and immediately start shaking things up. But the filmmakers don’t go for these kinds of easy setups. Things start out normal, and Kym, though she clearly has problems, is actually rather pleasant and likable, and even her relationship with Rachel seems pretty stable. Her issues are much more insidious, though, and it quickly becomes obvious that Kym resents the attention being showered on her sister. This tension finally comes out during a toast at the rehearsal dinner that, though a bit over the top, is notable for being at the same time relatively innocuous and unbelievably hard to watch.

Scenes like this one and the epic argument that follow it back at the family’s house are where Rachel Getting Married is at its best. Rarely does the conflict in these types of films arise so naturally and organically out of the situations. Usually it devolves into actors competing to see who can deliver their lines with the most venom, but here the arguments feel all too real. A lot of credit should go to Hathaway, who wisely holds back enough that Kym never feels too much like a caricature, but I was also very impressed with Rosemarie DeWitt as Rachel and Bill Irwin as the sisters’ mild-mannered father Paul, who has the unenviable role of playing referee in most of the conflicts. The scenes between the family are unbelievably tight in their execution, but never in a way that seems over-rehearsed, and most of all, the script lets the story come out of these characters and the ways they clash rather than vice versa.

Demme films all this in that jittery handheld video style that I have time and again railed against, but here I have to admit that it adds an element of immediacy that might not have been there otherwise. He just might have hit on the perfect use of the handheld style (something that John Cassavettes realized 30 years ago), and it helps to add a fluidity to scenes that could have come off all too much like theater.

The problem is that beyond this opening conflict the film has very little to offer beyond reverting to a number of Lifetime-channel cliches and confrontations that, if not delivered by such superior actors, would seem laughably juvenile. Near the end of the film, things get rather repetitive, and it eventually becomes frustratingly obvious that what we have here is the content of an excellent short film stretched and padded to feature length. Demme tries to combat this by including several documentary-style scenes of the wedding activities. There are toasts, speeches, and dinners, but outside of a few cut-ins of Kym looking troubled, they add absolutely nothing to the actual story. When it came time for the actual wedding ceremony I was truly hoping that he would cut around it. No such luck.

And then there’s the music. Scene after scene of it, throughout the movie. It’s all played by wonderfully able musicians in a number of genres, but beyond making me wonder where I could get a hold of some of these songs it has no effect whatsoever on the experience of the film’s story. Demme made Stop Making Sense. We know he can shoot the hell out of a musical performance, but in the context of the film these otherwise cool scenes are nothing more than filler.

Maybe ditching these scenes and extending the actual story of Rachel Getting Married would have made it one of the more hard-hitting films of last year, and maybe it would have watered everything down to the point of unwatchabilty. It’s hard to say, but the point is that Demme and Lumet seemingly didn’t try, they just got in contact with some good musicians and let them go crazy. Watched alone, I’d wager that the few good scenes of familial conflict rank among the best of last year. They are heartbreakingly incisive, and hit all the right notes that you look for and so rarely get in a movie like this. But in the film’s second half everything just sort of devolves into a half-baked concert film/wedding documentary. All these scenes pile on one another to the point that by the end of Rachel Getting Married, you feel as though you’ve actually attended the wedding, and the supposed family drama seems less like the actual story and more like an embarrassing scene you stumbled upon while you were waiting to get another drink.

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