Saturday, February 07, 2009

Review - Rachel Getting Married

Although he enjoyed his biggest success with his 1991 thriller The Silence of the Lambs, my favourite Jonathan Demme films remain the ones he made before that Oscar-winner. Films like Melvin and Howard, Married to the Mob and Something Wild; eccentric, lively, character-driven comedies that still delight and surprise today. When Demme made the unlikely switch to darker material – pleasing audiences, critics and Academy voters alike – there seemed to be nothing he couldn't do, but his career has never since regained that early momentum. Instead, Demme found himself making increasingly dull prestige pictures, eventually reaching his nadir with the extraordinarily pointless remakes The Truth About Charlie (based on Hitchcock's Charade) and The Manchurian Candidate. So what happened to Jonathan Demme? When did he become so boring? When did he lose his sense of humour? When did he lose that something wild?

Rachel Getting Married is a rather over-determined and self-conscious attempt by Demme to revitalise his filmmaking. Having done his most interesting work of the past decade in the field of documentaries, the director applies some of those techniques to Jenny Lumet's screenplay, aiming to achieve a you-are-there sense of immersion, but perhaps he was too successful in this ambition (how I longed for Tak Fujimoto's painterly compositions!). We are invited to a wedding – the preparation, the ceremony, the backstage drama – but by the film's midpoint I was ready to leave, and by the time the ludicrously overextended climax rolled onscreen I was desperate to get out and breathe the night air. Rachel Getting Married unfortunately bears striking similarities to Noah Baumbach's recent Margot at the Wedding, and as with that film, it pains me to criticise the project because I like the ideas behind it and I'd love to see it succeed, but poor decision-making and a schematic screenplay ultimately sink Demme's good intentions.

Despite the title, our focus for the duration of Rachel Getting Married is a character named Kym. She's Rachel's sister, and at the start of the film, she is waiting to be collected from the rehab centre where she has been treated for substance abuse, having received a weekend pass to attend her sister's nuptials. Kym is played by Anne Hathaway who, like Demme, is using this film to break away from the mainstream, and to drastically alter our perceptions of her range. The beautiful, beaming star of The Devil Wears Prada and Get Smart has added a few jagged edges (and, unfortunately, a few twitchy mannerisms) to her game here, and as soon as she arrives at the family home, the tension levels start to rise. She throws a tantrum when she discovers Rachel has asked a friend to be maid of honour instead of her, she announces her arrival at her 12-step meeting with a loud "Cocksucker!" as she trips over a chair, and then she goes back home, where she fucks the best man (and fellow addict) in the basement. Kym is narcissistic, abrasive and brittle, and she's not much fun to be around.

Hathaway has been garnering praise and awards consideration for her work here, but I think there is more convincing, persuasive acting going on elsewhere in the picture, particularly from Rosemarie DeWitt, whose subtle display as Rachel provides the film with a much-needed emotional anchor. My favourite aspect of Rachel Getting Married is the depiction of the sibling dynamic at its core, and DeWitt's depiction of the patient, straight-laced older sister, determined not to let Kym hijack her big day, rings true. The film's finest scene occurs right after Kym has given an embarrassing speech at the rehearsal dinner, and Rachel directly confronts her younger sister's need to turn the spotlight on herself at all times. In this moment, we gain an insight into the years of frustration and resentment that Rachel has been suppressing, but over the course of the film's narrative, the two sisters tentatively edge towards a sense of understanding. This arc is a compelling one to follow, or at least, it would be if it wasn't buried under so many extraneous shenanigans.

Before we watch Hathaway make her excruciating speech, we sit through toasts from all of the other guests, and the speeches just keep on coming. Demme obviously wants us to experience something as close as possible to a real wedding party, and he pulls as much of the surrounding atmosphere into the movie as possible, but his indulgence unbalances the film. After the unfunny and uninteresting toasts, the guests are invited to do a turn – play an instrument, sing a song, tell some jokes – but Demme doesn't know when to cut away from this sideshow, with these sequences are rolling on far longer than they should be allowed to, and I found the result unutterably aggravating. At times, it appears no corner of the Buchmans' home is free from musicians of every stripe (When a stressed Kym screamed, "Are they going to play all weekend!" I stifled a cheer), most of whom are friends that Demme has made in the course of his music documentary career, and all of this noise simply gets in the way of the family drama I wanted to see.

Perhaps Demme thought filling the film with "atmosphere" would paper over the shortcomings in Lumet's script. It's a thin piece of writing which isn't substantial enough to carry a feature, and the writer has a habit of sparking dramatic moments in a way that feels horribly contrived. One particularly risible scene features Kym bumping into an ex-fellow addict who recounts an untrue story she told in rehab, angering Rachel and leading to a blazing row – the sequence feels false from top to bottom. I could also cite the long dishwasher-loading episode between Rachel's groom-to-be Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe) and her father (Bill Irwin), which exists solely for its tragic punchline, or the hysterical encounter between Kym and her mother (Debra Winger, nice to see you) which escalates so quickly the pair were trading blows before I'd even cottoned on to what they were arguing about. At this point in the proceedings I had already long realised that Rachel Getting Married doesn't work on a dramatic level, but thanks to Demme's free-wheeling style, I still had to sit through the interminable, schmaltzy multi-cultural wedding itself, which closes the picture. As ghastly as this ceremony appeared to me, Demme presents it entirely without irony, and the film really does seem to be saying, "Look at how wonderful this is, aren't you glad we allowed you to share in these ultra-cool wedding celebrations?" Some people will love that sense of being involved in the party, of course, but by the time Sidney started singing Neil Young's Unknown Legend to his bride at the altar, I wished that I had declined this particular invitation.