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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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“One of my favorite things in watching any performance on film is when there isn’t a lot of cutting going on and when you get a chance to become really absorbed in the artist in hand. The same way we do, hopefully, at a concert, when we get a chance to really trip in to something that’s happening on stage. Whether the singer’s singing, or one of the other musicians is playing, we sort of stay there instead of cutting round with our eyes a lot.”
~ Jonathan Demme

“We’ve talked about this before in the past, my obsession with the Shakespearean histories having the ideal combination of the sweet and the sour. In ‘Henry IV, Part II’ which we’ve discussed before, in the end of that story it’s very complex and haunting because Prince Hal becomes Henry the King, and he has transcended his hoodlum days and at the ceremony is Falstaff, his good friend with whom he has really fucked around and been a loser with, and Falstaff comes up to him and says, ‘Now that you’re king we can really party,’ and the king famously says, ‘I know thee not, old man.’ It becomes Henry IV’s anointment and Falstaff’s catastrophe. That’s life. I have experienced very little unfettered triumph. There are moments, such as when my children are born, but even that comes with new fears and anxieties. In a sense the better you can communicate that life is both at once, the more powerful over time something becomes. One strives for something where the threads are there because it lasts in way that is very palpable. The idea of a tragedy is powerful in literature and theater, but in cinema it doesn’t work, certainly not commercially, and less so critically. Why is that? I think it has to do with how movies are so close to us.”
~ James Gray