Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Watching "Rachel Getting Married," I couldn't help but notice there were so many ways this film could have gone wrong. It could have gone the route of cloying melodrama meant for a Lifetime Original Movie, or it could have become the typical (and typically unfunny) wedding comedy, or it could have even made a open grab for Oscars; instead, Jonathan Demme crafted a understated film containing equals amounts of uncomfortable humor, family drama, and fun.
Don't let the title fool you: Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) does get married, but this is not her show. The story mainly centers around her sister Kym, a recovering addict who's finally found a treatment program that seems to work and who gets a day pass out of rehab to attend her sister's wedding. Anne Hathaway imbibes the character, infusing her with a sharp wit and a completely selfish personality. Not many are happy to see Kym at the house, and you quickly get the feeling that it's not because of her habit, or at least not directly.
The first half of the movie is a fairly dark comedy; Kym is offended that she is not the maid of honor, she wants all the attention, and she is, of course, the token disastrous toaster. So many movies about weddings make practically every character do their best to ruin the whole affair, but writer Jenny Lumet knows that it really only ever takes one.
The third act of the film is where the tensions finally come to a head the night before the wedding. Kym must confront her biggest demon and how it affects her family, and it threatens to rip them all apart before Sidney and Rachel make it to the altar. Hathaway, whose been so biting and self-centered the whole time, suddenly taps into some powerful emotions that expel a great deal of pent-up self-hate in a way that seems totally realistic. All that talk of her Oscar worthiness is true: as clichéd as it may be, she is Kym, and at no point during the near two hour running length did I even think "Hey, she was in The Princess Diaries."
The wedding itself is both wholly irrelevant and the fundamental triumph of the film. For Kym, whose story drives the film, it serves as little more than a device, yet the wedding and everything concerning it contains the ultimate subject of the film: marriage and its affect on family. Rachel, who has been locked into her own personal hell more or less because of Kym and her effect on the family, has a chance at a new and happy life with Sidney. My absolute favorite part of the film, even beyond the actors, is the fact that Lumet not once comments on Sidney and Rachel's interracial relationship. Hollywood loves to pat itself on the back when it comes to social issues, but we see a couple and their families simply interacting; there is no racist grandmother, no initial distrust between the two clans. Sidney's family immediately treats Rachel's family like their own, as does Rachel's. If nothing else, "Rachel Getting Married" hopefully points to a future in which race is a non-issue like it truly should be.
Also deserving mention is Demme's hand-held camera work. He gets in close to the actors, and you feel like that guest who awkwardly stumbles into a party where you don't really know the people or, worse, into a family situation. The way the camera sort of finds itself in the middle of an argument has a humor all its own. Demme gives Lumet's superb script a bit of an Altman-esque feel; he does not examine the background characters like the master did, but Demme does do a good job of exploring people other than Rachel and Kym. As much praise as Hathaway is (deservedly) getting, attention must be paid to both Rosemarie DeWitt and Debra Winger as Rachel and Kym's emotionally distant mother, who has one scene with Kym of great power. Personally, I think DeWitt deserves a Supporting Actress nomination more than Winger, but the Academy loves to pick supporting noms based on scenes, and Winger has the best I've seen of a supporting actress this year.
"Rachel" is not quite perfect; Kym moves through her path just a bit too quickly and there are some scenes that Demme might have bettered served with more traditional shooting. But it is a painfully honest film that, in true Altman fashion, weaves together a tapestry of potential stories, many of which remain unexplored, as they do in real life. Lumet, Hathaway, and DeWitt all deserve Oscar nominations and, barring some great revelations in the last few weeks of the year, wins. It is far and away the best wedding movie I've ever seen, and to understand just how much it breaks the usual mold, just consider that Hathaway's next project is called Bride Wars.