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David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

TIFF Review – Rachel Getting Married

Rachel Getting Married is the best Altman movie in 15 years.
Of course, this film is not by Robert Altman, but by Jonathan Demme, one of America’s great filmmakers, of a generation that came up behind the Altmans and others of the early 70s, who made his first high profile film, Melvin and Howard, one decade after Altman’s M*A*S*H*. Twenty-eight years later, Demme pays tribute to Altman with the style of real-life over-talking, silence, and open ends that he has never really emulated before combined with his personal aesthetic of music, wild but loving characters, and unexpected performances that change careers.
The story is simple… kinda. The title character, Rachel, is getting married. But the center of the movie is her sister, Kym, who is coming out of rehab (not crisis, rehab!) to be a part of the celebration. Over the course of one weekend, we will meet the family, discover secrets, and see the foibles of ourselves and people we know, even if the storyline doesn’t fit like a glove. It is part of Demme’s genius that he makes his people – all of his people – relentlessly real and empathetic.
There is a lot of The Celebration, probably the best of all the Dogma films, in Rachel. But Demme pulls back the layer one level deeper, choosing not to throw quite as severe a curve into the story. Rachel never reaches that level of a family deteriorating under the weight of a long held lie. This family’s pain is no secret. It is much more like most families that suffer tragedy along the path of life… everyone knows… everyone hopes it won’t surface… everyone gets caught up in the petty (and not so petty) roles that they play in either ripping off scabs or trying to heal them… family.
So much of what is great in all of Demme’s work is the casting (though I don’t remember a Demme film without Chuck Napier before). Here, it is Anne Hathaway’s show and she doesn’t miss a note. But in tribute to that success, she might have a hard time with Oscar because she is too real… she doesn’t show off for the camera. And when you hear criticism of this film, that will be the center of the complaint. Not the performance, but the lack of “gotcha” movie moments. Every story is different, but this is one of those human stories that feels more real than written (thanks to Jenny Lumet, the screenwriter, and yes, Sidney Lumet’s kid.)
Once you get past Hathaway, you have the emergence of an actress who may be one of our next big stars and the reappearance of an actress who was one of our biggest stars… and then walked away. But wait until you get a load of Debra Winger. She just eats the screen every second the camera lands on her. She’s not hamming it up… she is just plain magnetic. There is, as you might remember, so much going on behind her eyes that as an audience member, you just have to keep an eye on her to see what’s going on. And she too… she has one “big scene,” but it isn’t as big, in the script, as you might expect. You don’t get the 5 minute speech where she tears down the house. What you get is what the character demanded… and that includes a boatload of subtext. She may not end up winning an Oscar for this performance, but you get the feeling that some director with a great script for an adult woman will turn up at her door and talk her into doing the work and winning one. All these years since she has been a fixture in movies and she still has that unmistakable star power.
And Rosemary DeWitt, best known for her work on Mad Men, shows up big here as the opposite number to Hathaway’s reservoir of pain and fear. She’s the one who holds the family together, even when it’s her day. And she hits just the right notes of selflessness and selfishness…. again, from life.
Of course, Demme has his regular parade of irregulars (the regular ones and others). One of the most fascinating casting choices is Sidney, Tunde Adebimpe (who you might remember from Jump Tomorrow). The role of the husband-to-be could be cast in all kinds of ways, but Adebimpe plays it close to the vest, with the clear presence of big ego potential, but very low key… a man who draws people into his world, but also puts out for those close to him when the chips are down. (Many would say the same of Demme.)
Anna Deavere Smith as The Second Wife… Bill Irwin as a father twisted in emotional knots that he fights not to allow to unravel… a new actress named Anisa George as the bitchy best friend… Carol Jean Lewis leading the way as the leading face of Sidney’s impeccably cast family… and comedy-guy Mather Zickel, turning in a smooth performance as The Best Man.
And then there is the music. There is a score, but the film is floating throughout on a cloud of “live” music around the house… serious music, light music, ethnic music, noodling, performance… all kinds of music… infectious music… life in a iPod of the coolest stuff you’ll hear.
By the end of the film, your expectations have been overwhelmed by the world that Demme and all of his collaborators (including Declan Quinn as DP and Ang Lee’s regular cutter, Tim Squyres on the Avid) have created. At the same time, what many people expect to get from a movie these days is not offered. Sorry. But any detractor – and there will surely be some – should take a breath and think about what they were offered here by Lumet, Demme, et al. When is the last time we saw this kind of intimacy in a movie released by a major or a division of a major? It’s what Altman was always reaching for, for better and sometimes worse. It is what Soderbergh beings to his more earnest efforts. It’s what we yearn for at film after film at these festivals… an intimate human truth.
A wedding is where the family is forced/chooses to come together, as adults, with histories, in an attempt to share a loving event. It is a classic dramatic construct. Rachel Getting Married is a classic deconstruction. It is a minor masterpiece. So far, it is the best American movie of the year. And even in this weak movie year, that is saying something.

2 Responses to “TIFF Review – Rachel Getting Married”

  1. PanTheFaun says:

    Dave, you — and others — have remarked that the film is ‘open-ended.’ That sounds great to me, and I certainly don’t know the specifics, but does it strike you as a film that will anger most mainstream moviegoers?
    I don’t mean them liking or not liking the movie, I mean infuriating, much in the way that films like “No Country for Old Men” or “Margot at the Wedding” upset viewers used to easy or conclusive answers.

  2. PanTheFaun says:

    *don’t WANT to know the specifics

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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas