Saturday, November 8, 2008

Rachel Getting Married (2008, Jonathan Demme)

I think the moment I realized exactly what a masterful achievement Rachel Getting Married is came during the rehearsal dinner. In this extended sequence- almost an entire reel long- director Jonathan Demme shows speech after speech, each one creative and sincere, and warmly received. Then we get to Kym, sister of the bride and maid of honor, played by Anne Hathaway. Up to this point in the film, Kym has been something of a fly in the ointment, getting released from rehab to come to Rachel’s wedding only to promptly run roughshod over the proceedings. But in her mind, her speech at the rehearsal dinner is her chance to make everything right. She gets up and throws out some tart one-liners, but nobody laughs. Then she takes a chance to make amends to the pain she’s caused her sister, but no one is really buying. It’s in this scene that we really begin to feel how deep the wounds are that separate Kym from the rest of her family, and even if her speech had been a success, it would’ve taken much more for her to heal them.

The trailer for Rachel Getting Married suggests a story in which Kym reconciles with her family, hugs are exchanged, and everyone parties till dawn backed by a samba band. But don’t let this fool you- it’s pretty strong meat. At various points in the story, it’s hard not to hate all of the characters at least a little bit- Kym for bringing her family such misery, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) for not trying to understand where Kym is coming from, their dad (Bill Irwin) for being ineffectual, their mom (Debra Winger) for running away when she’s needed. Hell, even the wedding itself seems too good to be true, like a liberal wet dream of a multi-culti secular wedding. It’s just so perfectly planned (by Rachel and her prissy best friend Emma, no less) that it feels like a rebuke to the messy, down-and-out life that Kym has been leading ever since she got involved with drugs. Watching Kym navigate her way around the wedding is a reminder of what it can be like when everyone seems to be enjoying themselves except for you.

Like Robert Altman before him, the Demme of Rachel Getting Married knows that sometimes, it’s better to let character establish themselves by the ways they interact with each other than to simply announce who they are to the audience. By plunging headlong into the story, the film completely immerses the audience in the dynamic of the Buckman family. Because of old wounds and tragedies, they just can’t connect as they should, so that even the most innocuous and oblivious gestures (like Kym handing dad a stack of plates) can be blown completely out of proportion. In lesser hands, the situation around which Rachel Getting Married is built might have come off as a comedy of discomfort in a Ricky Gervais vein, but here the laughs don’t come. Here, as Octave said in Rules of the Game, “the great tragedy of life is this- everyone has his reasons.” In a way, Rachel Getting Married plays like the humanist counterpart to the misanthropic Burn After Reading- in both films, the characters get so caught up in their own blinkered versions of the world that they can hardly be bothered with empathy.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

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