A film review by Craig J. Koban
RACHEL GETTING MARRIED
2008, R, 113 mins.
2008, R, 113 mins.
Kym: Anne Hathaway / Rachel: Rosemarie DeWitt / Abby: Debra
Winger / Paul: Bill Irwin / Carol: Anna Deavere Smith
Is Jonathon Demme one of our least appreciated working directors?
I sure think so. I would also add that he is arguably one of the most neglected
film masters, but he now has managed to regain some of his lost luster by
teaming up with a young actress to help nourish one of her one of her
most punishingly emotional and transformative performances of her career,
if not of 2008. RACHEL
GETTING MARRIED is nothing short of a glorious and inspired return to
proud form for an often forgotten directorial maestro.
– arguably his single greatest since 1991’s THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
– contains individual moments of such raw, truthful, heartfelt, and
brutal power that I found myself forgetting that I was watching a staged
drama. The film creates such
a staggering level of stunning verisimilitude with its proceedings that
you feel like you’re eavesdropping on all of the trials and tribulations
– no matter how intimate and cruel – of the family within the story.
This is one of those exceptionally rare wedding films where I got
completely and fully swept away and absorbed in the narrative and
personas. I typically reserve
usage of the phrase “out of body film” for works that create
such a systematic and densely realized imaginative world (like STAR
WARS or WATCHMEN) or for
period films that effortlessly evoke their respective time periods (like CINDERELLA
MAN or CHANGELING), but RACHEL
GETTING MARRIED is an all new innovative beast altogether.
deceptively small and modest film, utterly void of the usual big budget
and glossy Hollywood artifice and sheen (which Demme has successfully
dabbled in), but it is RACHEL GETTING MARRIED’s preciseness with its
stridently minimalist lack of style that made me forget that I was in the
confines of a movie theatre. I felt like I actually inhabited and
participated in the lives of the film’s characters and relationships.
Sometimes the most memorable films are the most astutely observant
of basic human behaviors.
Within a few scant minutes of immersing myself in Demme’s film, I
found myself wholeheartedly surrendering to it; it so abundantly
captures the tempo and flow of one long nuptial-filled weekend that, by
the time it’s over, you swear that you were actually invited to
either passionately love this film or vehemently despise
its aesthetic choices. I am
strongly in the former category because I think that the film
beautifully succeeds because of Demme’s choices. Using a slightly veiled autobiographical script from writer
Jenny Lumet (daughter of her director daddy, Sidney), Demme has crafted
his most artistically meager – but intensely suggestive – films.
Instead of using elaborately constructed shots, telegraphed
lighting cues, and other forms of movie fakery, Demme elected to shoot RACHEL
GETTING MARRIED with a shaky, cinema verite style that will certainly turn
lay filmgoers off. Yet, it is
his naturalistic, documentarian approach that is the key driver of the
film’s universal dramatic notes. The
cameras here are mostly handheld, the lighting is all natural, and there
is no hint of an orchestral music score.
The framing of the shots themselves show no rhythm or reason.
Yet, the film is able to craft such an undeniable spontaneity that
very few staged dramas ever achieve.
If you allow yourself to capitulate to Demme’s disarming lack of
artistic hubris in the film, then it becomes really easy to feel like an
active participant in it, and not just a slack jawed, passive viewer.
Because of this intended effect, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED exhilarated
me for how it allowed itself to unfold: you not only observe its
nuances, you experience them.
the film’s shatteringly provocative stylistic trappings (or lack there
of), to watch RACHEL GETTING MARRIED is to witness the extraordinary
transformation of a young actress into stunningly dark and emotional
convoluted performance. Anne
Hathaway is an actress that I thought had little range beyond fluff pieces
like the two PRINCESS DIARY films and THE
DEVIL WEARS PRADA (although she has a few discretely strong
moments in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN),
but it is through Demme’s direction that this actress manages to abandon
herself into a role that dives into the deepest and darkest recesses of a
flawed, selfishly narcissistic, and self-imploding character.
Considering her relative career resume, loaded with stilted and
light-hearted roles, it’s a triumphant joy to see Hathaway shed any
semblance of ego and morph into a performance of quivering – and almost
unbearable and cringe-worthy – dramatic truth.
Hathaway plays Kym, who has just arrived home from a long and arduous stint in rehab. She makes it one day before the wedding of her older sister, Rachel (played in the film’s equally textured and assured performance by Rosemarie DeWitt, in a breakout performance if there ever was one). Kym is not one of those annoyingly warmed over and obnoxiously kind-hearted misfits that has occupied other family dramas so many countless times before: she is an almost impenetrably selfish, egomaniacal, and self-destructive junkie who has allowed drugs and alcohol to rip her to shreds since her teen years (and especially after a traumatic, life altering family event). Nonetheless, Kym has been clean for nearly a year, but even her new lease on life has not really changed her that much. She is still a somewhat cruel and unthinking creature that lets her self-centeredness get the better of her. Even worse is how she goes out of her way to ensure that everyone around her feels her pain and desolation. She is so freakishly biopolar that you are left thinking that no amount of sobriety will ever correct this frail women’s mental state.
Her relationship with her family is a laborious and grueling endurance test of will. The dad (played thanklessly by Bill Irwin) is the poster boy for overprotective parents, who constantly swarms over Kym to defend and shelter her when good-natured people around him feel it's best to give up. Kym’s initial visit starts off fairly well, and her reuniting with her sister is calmly poignant, but she throws a real scene in front of everyone when she discovers that Rachel has chosen her best friend, Emma (Anisa George) to be her maid of honor.
Things, as you
would guess, really snowball to depraved depths from hereon in.
Lesser film would
have approached this material with a cookie cutter script that slavishly
and mechanically goes from one beat to the next.
Fortunately, Demme and Lumet never fall victim to such pratfalls
because they never really let the audience feel that they are ahead of the
game. The film is at its
absolute dramatic apex when it explores the complexities and deep
contradictions of Hathaway’s character, sometimes pausing on minute
scenes that other dramas would not have time for.
Because of this, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED becomes bracingly honesty
and steeped in such an authentic vivaciousness for how it lets you slip
into the mindsets of its characters.
There are so many moments where you just don’t feel like your
watching a movie, but a document of a family reeling with and
trying to deal with harshly felt pain and resentment.
Just look at one
relatively early scene in the film that is also it’s most harrowing and
– at times – unwatchable. It
occurs during on long wedding rehearsal supper where all of Rachel’s
friends and family members stand up with a microphone and toast her and
the husband-to-be. We see Kym’s growing disillusionment with herself and her
place within her family, not to mention growing gluttonously jealous of
how much loving attention her sister is receiving.
In what has to be one of the movie’s great scenes of one
character’s unbreakable self-absorption and insensitive conceitedness,
Kym grabs the microphone for one last toast and totally embarrasses
herself in front of Rachel, her family, and her new in-laws by engaging in
a unsettling monologue that showcases her character’s futile self-pity
and pathetic alienation. What’s
crucial here is that Kym is never presented as a hopeful figure that will
command respect and sympathy from the audiences;
Lumet’s script and Hathaway’s deceitfully mean-spirited and
duplicitous performance ensures us of that.
I loved how Kym never once plays nice to appease the sensibilities
of viewers. At times, she feels completely beyond
However, as the
film progresses small little snippets of Kym’s past are brought to the
forefront, but they are never used as lame duck excuses to validate her
tortuous and unforgivable behaviour.
As we get closer to the day of the wedding – and as Kym grows
even more distancing from her sister and family – we discover the true
origins of her decades-old battle with depression and abuse, which is
driven home by a shocking confrontation with her semi-estranged mother
(played by Debra Winger in a fierce and bitter performance).
As the film spirals towards a conclusion, which culminates with the
wedding itself, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED never makes complete amends with
Kym: she never fully emerges as
someone to root for and like, but you nevertheless develop a modest level
of understanding for what makes her tick.
The way the film drives home its truth and pathos is made all the
more rousing with how Demme’s chaotic camera work and style –
alongside Hathaway’s equally frenzied performance – reflects how life
can be so categorical messy. At
its core, the film is a journey into how troubled souls try to fumble
their way through revealing all of their insecurities with one another and
themselves, and the results never really find that requisite level of rosy
closure that typify many Hollywood genre films.
stated, is an incomparably breathtaking here as the volatile and seriously
unstable Kym: it’s one of 2008’s most invigorating and transformative
performances. Yet, her
astounding tour de force work here would never gel consistently without
Rosemarie DeWitt to bounce scenes off of (her lack of an Oscar
nomination is a shame). DeWiit
may have the toughest job between the pair for finding just the right
manner of revealing her character’s own pent up insecurities with
dealing with her disturbed sister. She displays both love and
compassion for her sister alongside a serious level of hostility and
resentment for Kym’s awkward involvement in her nuptials (both sisters,
ironically, feel like the walls of their respective worlds are closing in
on them largely because of the meddling intrusiveness of each other).
The two other performance highlights belong to Bill Irwin as the
father, who finds himself in a emotionally claustrophobic situation trying
to find a healthy balance between honoring, respecting, and nurturing both
of his daughters without playing favourites, and Debra Winger, who shows a
wounded and quietly cruel detachment towards both of her daughters'
Everything in Jonathon Demme’s brilliantly and meticulously constructed RACHEL GETTING MARRIED unfolds with such powerful conviction. At his own personal insistence of making the most “beautiful home movie ever made,” his undemanding and nominal style allows for the individual performances and their interactions to simmer with such a dynamic realism and cold veracity. The characters that populate the film get under their own skins and those of the audience in ways that ostensibly scripted and manufactured films struggle with. The ultimate accolade that I will bestow upon RACHEL GETTING MARRIED is that it – just about better than any other film in 2008 – cuts through the unnecessary layers and baggage that permeates so many dull and lethargic dramas and instead finds an emotional fullness even with its low reliance on film artifice. Demme, one of the cinema’s finest and most versatile directors, further cements this praise by making RACHEL GETTING MARRIED feel like a film abundantly alive with its stark and uncompromisingly brutal honesty it gives its characters. A film too polished and pristine looking would have completely undone the effect here: Demme understands that his uneven, disordered, and unsophisticated shooting style is precisely what is needed to both anchor this film’s level of intense realism alongside propelling viewers into its troubled world. Like all great artists, he has adapted to fit the needs of the material, and RACHEL GETTING MARRIED is certainly one of 2008’s most triumphant and endlessly enthralling films.
a hard film to leave behind and forget about once you’ve decided to become one of its