It’s a staple of the cinematic form, drama’s go-to position when anything outside biology becomes unobtainable. In fact it’s such a stalwart that the independent movement has been milking it for over a decade, hoping it will grab the attention of the often-indifferent mainstream. Families in freefall as a motion picture type has been around since talkies gave voice to its collection of characters, but in the post-modern world, relations between parents and children, siblings and each other, and any newcomer to the kinship have been turned into something similar to a gonzo Greek tragedy. With the rare exception, these narratives revolve around the uncompromising pain our loved ones inflict on each other and us, while struggling to suggest sentiments more universal and profound. Rachel Getting Married gets most of this ideal dead right. But how it gets there becomes a big part of the film’s overall critical failing.
Kym is the typical black sheep of her smug Northeastern family. A wild child teen model, she’s now a raging drug addict whose intoxicated antics led to some devastating, deadly results. On leave from rehab, she’s returning home to participate in her sister Rachel’s wedding. After first, everyone is wary of her prickly presence, including her overprotective father and sis’s suspicious friend. But as she warms up to her future brother-in-law’s best man, a fellow former junkie himself, and makes various scenes in public, the pain she’s hiding begins to slip through. Then her distant mother arrives, her decision for divorce derived directly from Kym’s inexcusable actions. As tempers flare and secrets emerge, it’s clear that everyone here has been affected by our highly stung heroine - and her inability to face up to the responsibility of same. Of course, their hands are far from clean.
Rachel Getting Married is Ordinary People turned inside out. It’s Shoot the Moon, Georgia, and dozens of lesser examples of familial dysfunction filtered through every cultural celebration on the planet. While it marks a return to familiar territory for cinematic schizophrenic Jonathan Demme, it contains elements that make you wonder why he came back in such an artistically questionable way. Perhaps after squandering his Oscar and Indie cred on such slight efforts as Beloved, The Truth About Charlie, and The Manchurian Candidate (the last two unnecessary remakes), he decided to rediscover his cinematic muse. But while the script he uncovers is more than solid (here’s hoping that Sidney Lumet’s daughter Jenny gets the Oscar nom she so richly deserves), and the performances he draws on exceptional, Demme’s own ideas appear to purposely undermine his efforts along the way.
Indeed, there are two facets of this film that threaten to overwhelm everything entertaining and endearing about the interpersonal problems on display. First, Demme employs the new fangled gimmick - the handheld shakey cam - to suggest a kind of An American Family documentary dynamic. As we watch talented actors pour their hearts out in conversations that crackle with abject realism, the cinematography acts like it’s got the shakes. There are perhaps two steady shots in the whole film. Otherwise, this is Cloverfield with monstrous people problems in place of an oversized extraterrestrial city killer. Quarantine wasn’t this unsettling, cinematically. It’s as if Demme watched The Blair Witch Project and any number of its crappy clones, and said “that sounds like fun.” Unfortunately, the stunt stifles some of the movie’s more memorable emotions.
Besides, the argument that this process gives the film a more authentic feel is high minded hogwash. Arguing documentary style suggests all fact directors are incapable of controlled camerawork. Sure, a more verite approach would support such a gross overgeneralization, but what we see in Rachel Getting Married is nothing short of a small screen interpretation of some clearly non-theatrical conceits. Directors need to look away from their video playback once and a while and realize that what they are creating will wind up 40 feet high in some neighborhood Multiplex. It’s as if everyone employing this device has given up on the moviegoing experience and relegated their film to the home video format of choice.
And then there is the almost cartoonish multiculturalism. On the one hand, Demme should be praised for taking such a color-blind approach to this material. Unlike Robert Redford’s Oscar winning walk through suburban Chicago psychosis, there is no clear connection to anything Caucasian. Kym and Rachel are certainly suggestive of the majority, but everyone else, from the African American fiancé (and his eclectic brood) to the various Asian, Hispanic, and indeterminate friends make an impression about the globe circa 2008. But then Rachel Getting Married goes overboard, bringing every manner of tradition and ritualized ethnicity to the table. We get glimpses of India, pieces plucked out of Peru and the rest of South America. The reception even dabbles in the Caribbean and Eastern Europe before settling in for some nice, normative USA jazz. But the troubles talked over deserve a more focused approach. Half the time we feel like we’re locked in a hot button version of Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?
And yet, Rachel Getting Married is so smartly written and expertly acted that we can easily forgive Demme’s directorial skylarking. Anne Hathaway, given the thankless job of making the perpetually whiny Kym seem tolerable, turns her into the noblest of needy offspring. At first, we wonder why the character constantly obsesses on her “me, me, me” mantra. Then we meet Bill Irwin’s dithering dad and - even better - Debra Winger’s Mary Tyler Moore style bitch mother and everything clicks. Both represent the worst aspects of so-called “perfect” parents - absenteeism, indifference, negotiating instead of directing. Both performers are fine, but Winger stands out as the kind of nurturer who clearly has limits. Elsewhere, Demme populates the film with an idiosyncratic collection of cameos. Everyone from Fab Five Freddy and Robin Hitchcock to Roger Corman make an amiable appearance.
In fact, had Demme done away with the trickery and taken this material more seriously, had he avoided the attempt to be au courant and simply staged the movie the way he did with previous classics like Something Wild or Melvin and Howard, we would be looking at an overall awards season frontrunner. Instead, Rachel Getting Married will be acknowledged for its cast, and for a screenplay that cuts out the clichés typically associated with the fractured clan genre, and that’s it. One cannot stress enough how remarkable certain individual moments are in this movie. Several scenes literally take your breath away with their heartbreaking intensity and raw nerve pain. But then the lens goes wobbly and we’re once again aware of the individual in the director’s chair. While taking an audience out of the moment is not the biggest cinematic crime, Demme turns it into something serial. Unfortunately, it costs his film dearly.