Thursday, January 01, 2009

Family conquers all.

I got married at a fairly young age, so I'm often asked what it's like by people in my age range. It's hard to explain what it's like to be married, but easy to explain the experience of getting married - it's being at the center of a riot of emotions that isn't all about you. One minute a usually reserved friend is giving you a drunken proclamation of her love for you, the next is spent breaking up an argument between two relatives that is ostensibly about seating arrangements but actually stems from psychic wounds inflicted before you were born. One of the best things about Rachel Getting Married is the way it perfectly captures the emotional turbulence of a family coming together with understated wit and generosity. Shooting on video with the freer approach of his documentary and concert movies, director Jonathan Demme has made not only his best and most emotionally affecting film since Philadelphia, but also the best wedding video ever.

The titular bride's sister Kym (Anne Hathaway), a recovering addict, arrives at her family home for the wedding festivities straight from her most recent stint in rehab. While the movie finds laughs in the tension between straight-laced psychology student Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) and her unpredictable sister, it never becomes the latest sitcom-y quirkfest. Nor does Jenny Lumet's script romanticize Kym's self-destructiveness, although Rachel correctly observes that Kym (like many addicts) would like to be seen as endearingly fucked-up. A highlight of the film is Kym's awkward rehearsal dinner toast, which veers between hilarious and painful as her well-intentioned attempt at reconciliation is derailed by the language and humor of twelve-step programs (Hathaway's bracingly honest performance reveals talent only hinted at in Brokeback Mountain). For Kym, making amends proves to be far more challenging than overcoming addiction, and as we learn about a tragedy in the family's past, Rachel Getting Married reveals itself as a precise portrait of a family finding reason to celebrate in the shadow of unthinkable loss.

Cinematographer Declan Quinn's camera is like a ghost in the room, quietly capturing the ongoing story of the Buchmans, realized by a pitch-perfect ensemble. Many reviews have singled out estranged mom Abby's (Debra Winger) late-film explosion, and it's great to have Winger back. But I found myself most moved by Bill Irwin as dad Paul - the actor's comedic skills help to create a character whose humor and generosity have kept him going. The best scene in the film, an impromptu dishwasher-loading contest between Paul and Rachel's quiet, sweet fiance Sydney (Tunde Adebimpe), is a hilarious bit of "youth vs. experience" one-upmanship suddenly punctuated, like a punch to the gut, by a reminder of the past that catches us off-guard the way these things do in life. Demme, whose most recent features were interesting but airless formal exercises, has rediscovered the loose-limbed energy of his early films - the emotional revelations arrive not according to formula but with the unpredictable rhythm of life.

This freewheeling approach is most evident during the extending wedding festivities. Demme gladly veers away from the plot to make room for Adebimpe (lead singer of one of my new favorite bands, TV on the Radio) to serenade DeWitt with Neil Young's "Unknown Legend," to meet Rachel and Sydney's extended family and friends, and for a mini-festival of musical performances. Some have complained that this section is self-indulgent, overlong and implausible, and I'll admit that when Robyn Hitchcock showed up it took me out of the movie for a moment (I guess David Byrne tending the grill would have been a bit too much). But I'll give Demme a pass on that, especially since the wedding is such a joyous celebration of life and family that it proves more satisfying than any conventional dramatic resolution. While the multicultural aspect of Sydney and Rachel's wedding has been singled out for praise and criticism for its sociological implications, I prefer to see it as Demme seems to - he's depicting this family's story as universal, the wounds of the past assuaged by the promise of a future where the world is one big family. Idealistic, to be sure, but I'm down with idealism.

1 comment:

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