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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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Dear Irene Cho, I will miss your energy and passion; your optimism and joy; your kindness towards friends, colleagues, strangers, struggling filmmakers, or anyone who randomly crossed your path and needed a hand. My brothers and I have long considered you another sibling in our family. Our holiday photos – both western and eastern – have you among all the cousins, in-laws, and kids… in the snow, sun, opening presents, at large dinner gatherings, playing Monopoly, breaking out pomegranate seeds and teaching us all how to dance Gangnam style. Your friendship and loyalty meant a great deal to me: you were the loudest cheerleader when I experienced victories and you were always ready with sushi when I had disappointments. You had endless crazy ideas which always seemed impossible but you would will them into existence. (Like that time you called me and suggested that we host a brunch for newly elected mayor of LA, Eric Garcetti because “he is going to president one day.” We didn’t have enough time or funding, of course, only your desire to do it. So you did, and I followed.) You created The Daily Buzz from nothing and it survived on your steam in spite of many setbacks because you believed in a platform for emerging filmmakers from all nations. Most of all, you were a wonderful mother to your son, Ethan, a devoted wife to your husband, and a wonderful sibling and daughter to your family. We will all miss how your wonderful smile and energy lit up the room and our lives. Rest in peace, Irene.
~ Rose Kuo Remembers Irene Cho on Facebook

“You know, I was never a critic. I never considered myself as a film critic. I started doing short films, writing screenplays and then for awhile, for a few years I wrote some film theory, including some film criticism because I had to, but I was never… I never had the desire to be a film critic. I never envisioned myself as a film critic, but I did that at a period of my life when I thought I kind of needed to understand things about cinema, understand things about film theory, understand the world map of cinema, and writing about movies gave me that, and also the opportunity to meet filmmakers I admired.

“To me, it was the best possible film school. The way it changed my perspective I suppose is that I believe in this connection between theory and practice. I think that you also make movies with ideas and you need to have ideas about filmmaking to achieve whatever you’re trying to achieve through your movies, but then I started making features in 1986 — a while ago — and I left all that behind.

“For the last three decades I’ve been making movies, I’ve been living, I’ve been observing the world. You become a different person, so basically my perspective on the world in general is very different and I hope that with every movie I make a step forward. I kind of hope I’m a better person, and hopefully a better filmmaker and hopefully try to… It’s very hard for me to go back to a different time when I would have different values in my relationship to filmmaking. I had a stiffer notion of cinema.”
~ Olivier Assayas