Judge Patrick Bromley wonders if Rachel will end up on a future episode of Bridezillas.
"I am Shiva the destroyer, your harbinger of doom this evening."
Director Jonathan Demme has had something of a difficult decade. His only two narrative films of the 2000s, The Truth About Charlie and The Manchurian Candidate (both remakes), were met with reactions ranging from lukewarm tolerance to downright hostility. He went into a self-imposed narrative exile, choosing instead to focus on real-life subjects and documentaries (including Jimmy Carter Man from Plains, The Agronomist and Neil Young: Heart of Gold). Then, sometime in 2007, director Sidney Lumet called him to say that he ought to direct a screenplay written by Lumet's daughter, Jenny. The result, Rachel Getting Married, is Demme's best film since The Silence of the Lambs.
Now, the best film of 2008 gets an excellent DVD treatment courtesy of Sony.
Facts of the Case
Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt, The Great New Wonderful) is getting married to Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe, Jump Tomorrow and lead singer of TV on the Radio). Rachel's sister, Kym (Academy Award nominee Anne Hathaway, The Devil Wears Prada) has been released from rehab to attend the wedding. Their father (Bill Irwin, Lady in the Water) is struggling to keep the peace. Their mother (Debra Winger, Eulogy) is having little to do with it. And while Kym struggles with staying sober and a tragic accident from her past, her insecurities and narcissism threaten to overshadow the entire lovely affair.
I was surprised at just how divisive Jonathan Demme's 2008 film Rachel Getting Married was when it was released in theaters last fall. Obviously, no movie is for everyone. But aside from some griping about the fact that the movie made people a way they didn't want to feel (which I could argue means that a film is a success), there were other reactions that I was hearing that were downright bizarre. Here are some of the complaints I heard leveled at Rachel Getting Married:
• It is depressing.
OK. Except for the last one, I could say those are all fair criticisms. I can't tell you that you're wrong for having any or all of those reactions to the film. But that's where you and I have to part ways, because for me, Rachel Getting Married was the best film of 2008 and Jonathan Demme's best film in nearly 20 years.
Is the movie depressing? Perhaps. This is a raw movie. There are difficult emotions exposed on the surface, but there are also feelings buried way down deep that are never articulated but which we know are there (think of it as the emotional equivalent of Hitchcock's "gun in the drawer," only the gun never goes off). There is tragedy and much painful arguing and family strife. But there is also a great deal of love and joy and healing and acceptance, none of which are depressing. Plus, I tend to subscribe to the great Roger Ebert's maxim that no good movie is depressing, but all bad movies are.
I can't convince you not to be nauseated by the hand-held camera work. Yes, Demme has spent the majority of the decade making documentaries. He and D.P. Declan Quinn do shoot in a loose, cinema verite style that will leave many filmgoers cold. But the photography lends the movie an intimacy and an immediacy that traditional setups could not have accomplished. Demme's background as a documentarian informs the aesthetic of the film, making it feel like a camera crew was allowed access to a wedding weekend and Rachel Getting Married is the resulting product.
Many criticisms were voiced about the amount of time Demme spends on the actual wedding stuff in the movie, whether it's a rehearsal dinner with multiple speeches or musical performances at the wedding (most of the surrounding characters are musical, so there's a lot of instrument playing and spontaneous song in the film). Yes, I suppose that's true. But those speeches inform the characters. The film is about relationships both past and present, and scenes like the rehearsal dinner show us those relationships. They help the movie feel lived in. We see so many weddings in Hollywood films that are cynical and awful, celebrating a commercial idea of perfection (Hathway herself was party to this just a few months after Rachel with Bride Wars). Why not spend some time with a wedding that celebrates love and music and culture and diversity in a genuine way? Plus, the wedding looks fun and interesting and I've never seen a wedding quite like it. Sometimes, that, too, is why we go to movies.
As for that last criticism—yes, I did hear someone say it. No, it doesn't make much sense. I don't know what the difference is between someone convincingly playing a role and someone convincingly pretending to play a role. It's all pretend. If you successfully pretend to be a good actress, you are being a good actress. As someone who has always liked Anne Hathaway but rarely liked Anne Hathaway movies, I feel comfortable saying that she is a good actress and, yes, gives her best performance in Rachel Getting Married. It's not just the self-absorption she nails; it's the insecurity. It's the obvious feeling that this person would do anything to crawl out of her own skin if she could. Her rehearsal dinner speech is incredible and made me as uncomfortable at the movies as I've been in a long time. Many people don't want to feel that way at a movie. I get it. But I like movies that present real, believable people: people who are decent but flawed, who mean well but are incapable of doing or saying the exact right thing because they are, in some way, broken. That's the world I live in, and I appreciate when a movie can reflect that back to me. Yes, movies can be entertaining even when they're providing some small insight on humanity.
Not that Academy Awards are any kind of measure of a film's worth, but it's a shame that the Oscars felt fit to nominate only Hathaway for Best Actress. Yes, she earned it. But others were overlooked: Rosemarie DeWitt as Rachel, or Bill Irwin's heartbreaking performance as their father. Jenny Lumet's screenplay. Jonathan Demme's direction. All should have been nominated. A few should have won. Makes no difference.
Back to this notion of humanity: it is what Jonathan Demme—who has long been one of my favorite directors—is best at getting right. He loves people, and his films love people. He humanizes every one of his characters, from the everyman to the most eccentric: the uptight schlub of Something Wild to Howard Hughes in Melvin and Howard to the reformed mafia wife of Married to the Mob to the serial killer monster of The Silence of the Lambs. Even going back as far as his Roger Corman genre days, Demme was infusing the hard-ass inmates of Caged Heat with a humanity—sympathy, even—not otherwise found in womens' prison movies. His films tend to be about people who feel just outside the worlds they inhabit, and the ways in which they long and struggle to either fit into that world or ultimately break free of it entirely. That's Kym in Rachel Getting Married. She doesn't quite fit in, whether it's in her family or the wedding party or her 12-step recovery group, but she is trying to find her place. Demme wisely doesn't demand that we like her, but he and Hathaway make sure that through her struggle, Kym at least gains our respect.
Sony's DVD of Rachel Getting Married does a nice job of bringing the film to life, enriching the film with a good-sized collection of bonus features. The anamorphic widescreen transfer does a nice job of replicating the movie's not-quite-crystalline look; colors are vibrant when appropriate and the picture looks bright and clean. Same goes for the audio track, though little use is made of the surround-sound capabilities. That would have been wrong for the film, anyway. I will say that I wish there were subtitles for the film proper; the only captions included are for the commentary tracks. That's a nice feature, but no substitute for what could have amounted to essentially reading along with Lumet's screenplay as the film unfolds.
First up in the bonus features department is a pair of commentary tracks, the first featuring producer Neda Armian, editor Tim Squyres and screenwriter Jenny Lumet and the second recorded by costar Rosmarie DeWitt by herself. Both tracks are a little on the dry side, giving some standard behind-the-scenes information but not a whole lot more, and Demme's presence is greatly missed. It's unfortunate that there wasn't just one larger commentary with multiple voices; it would have been livelier and more in keeping with the spirit of the film. The featurettes are actually more enlightening than the commentaries.
About 20 minutes of deleted scenes are included on the DVD. Though many of them provide the same small glimpses of character that we get throughout the film, none provide any essential information and were wisely removed from the film. Both scenes featuring director/producer Roger Corman (who gave Demme his start) can be found here, though his name still appears in the opening credits.
There's a nearly hour-long Q&A session recorded at New York's Jacob Burns Center with cast and crew members, which (thankfully) Demme does participate in. It's an interesting conversation, with Demme in particular talking a lot about how the film came together and what drew him to the project (though, disturbingly, he does say that he's not really interested in making fiction films anymore). During the interview, Demme says he considers the film a work of "collective invention," which is reminiscent of the way Robert Altman used to work and suggests that the similarities between Rachel and Altman's A Wedding are not coincidental. Unfortunately, the audio on the Q&A is difficult to hear at times, requiring that you turn the sound way up to make out what's being said. Subtitles here would have helped, too.
Demme is also very present on the more traditional making-of featurette that's included here, which again provides some insight on what he hoped to accomplish with the film (he describes it as his "dream dinner party"). A shorter featurette details the film's extensive use of live music.
The movie's theatrical trailer and a collection of arty Sony Pictures Classics trailers round out the DVD.
I know Rachel Getting Married isn't the kind of film that's going to be universally loved. But, like its lead character, it should at least win your respect, if not your affection. As far as I'm concerned, one of the most human of all directors has made perhaps his most human movie.
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