Victor getting gobsmacked
RACHEL GETTING MARRIED (Jonathan Demme, 2008, USA) — 9
At the New Republic, Christopher Orr says RACHEL GETTING MARRIED features
the most elaborately multi-culti Bobo wedding ever committed to celluloid, a festival of singing and dancing and costumery featuring Robyn Hitchcock, Sister Carol East, and a groom (TV on the Radio vocalist Tunde Adebimpe) who sings Neil Young’s ‘Unknown Legend’ to his bride at the altar.
Not only is he correct, but he really understates the point. Even if it were no good as a family-relationship drama, though it is, it REALLY is … RACHEL GETTING MARRIED works as a completely-unintentional parody of Connecticut Upper-Crust Secular Multicultural Awareness. I began mentally ticking things off: there are four “parents” on Rachel’s side of the family (the side the film focuses on); the marriage is inter-racial and this is never even alluded to in any form; every ethnic group is represented in this World’s Fair by Benneton wedding guest list (I had to stifle a giggle at the entry of the Latin America Booth in the form of samba-dancers dressed for Rio Carnival week and a short dumpy woman in Andean Indian garb); the bride announces she is pregnant during the weekend, and this results in unmitigated celebration; their religion is “Religion”: the wedding cake was decorated by Hindu elephants, the wedding outfits are Indian-style, the walls are decorated by Christian-looking icons but done in the Hindu style, and Kym (the film’s central character, played by Anne Hathaway) toasts “L’Chaim”; the marriage is not in a church or by any sort of minister and the couple wrote their own vows; they live in Stamford in a multi-storey home on a lot big enough to pitch a wedding tent in the yard; Kym drives an old-model Mercedes; rehab, psychology PhD’s, smoking-Nazism and fucking someone the day you meet him are all considered unremarkable.
A fellow film geek “twittered” me “why do I have a feeling RGM is gonna piss you off just because of the wedding alone?” He was correct in guessing that I detest these people in the abstract and I’d consider attending this wedding in real-life to be a purgatorial experience. But as for the film I didn’t mind all this stuff at all. Why should a portrayal of a slice of society you dislike not have signifiers of “Dislikability”? It’s not that any of these Bobo Signifiers is unbelievable or remarkable; few are morally significant per se. But the sheer amount of them makes displayed Boboism almost a structuring principle (a thing you notice and react to), and it starts to become funny — how much more Aware and Tolerant can they portray themselves. “Oh … there’s Rigoberta Menchu … Must. Not. Giggle.”
But the real measure of this film’s greatness actually grows out of my very dislike for this environment — the fact remains that I gave two craps (and even shed a tear or two) about a group of people 95 percent of whom would vote for Barack Obama because that’s what all sane people do and would consider me Christofascist “pond scum” who “shouldn’t be let out of the house.” And not because I went in with particularly high expectations: I’m not the world’s No. 1 Demme fan as only SOMETHING WILD has made my Top 10s, and the early praise for RACHEL I didn’t entirely trust.
Like Charlize Theron in MONSTER a few years ago, Anne Hathaway is “downsexing” — a Hottie turning herself into a Nottie to prove that she can really act, and thus win respectability and perhaps an Oscar.¹ She plays 20-something Kym, just out from rehab (we find out later why) in time for the wedding weekend for her sister, the titular Rachel, at the father’s house. The three of them and the dynamic between them constitute RACHEL’s dominant subject matter (with the groom, their divorced mother and the memory of a dead brother playing the principal supporting roles, and a housefull of guests filling out the dance card.)
Hathaway simply creates a great character, primarily in several emotionally painful scenes that might read like the typical “couples fighting in the kitchen” blather. But here the pain is earned, because while Kym is sarcastic and a product of post-therapeutic society, she is not the self-righteous prig that Enid in GHOST WORLD is. She has a moral sense about herself and this comes out in several scenes, for example at a 12-step program where she expresses doubts about God, but ones that are not only the opposite of but even the antidote to Samhitchkins-esque frothing.
Kym is attention-seeking and self-absorbed, sure, but because she’s love-starved.² She makes up a tale of child sex abuse and gets exposed for it, but … well … not for simple self-serving reasons. RACHEL GETTING MARRIED contains both/and in her character without ever using either as an excuse to whitewash the other. She’s pitiable without being pitiful, so it makes all the difference when she rises up to give the toast at the rehearsal dinner, which was the scene that convinced me that this film was gonna be great. The dinner goes on for a long time but never feels boring (maybe it’s the structure — a series of toasts means that if a moment is sucking, we know it’ll end soon) and then when it gets to Kym, we’re primed for a major meltdown. And … I’ll put it this way … Kym definitely commits a bad faux pas. But appearances are kept, but not in a way that fools anybody, all of whom pretend not to notice. Just like in life.
The father and sister (Bill Irwin and Rosemarie Dewitt are perfect, BTW … though they won’t get the praise Hathaway will) have their own set of issues and I liked the way that a scene involving a dishwasher that just seems like pure self-indulgence (though it is a fun scene) not only had a surprising payoff involving an object of grief, but a payoff that remained believably uninflected. Or rather one that remained uninflected by the characters within the film (arguably, Demme does emphasize it). Later, after a confrontation with her mother (good to have Debra Winger back, BTW), there is a scene of Kym driving that reminded me of the great scene near the end of TIME OUT of Aurelien Recoing driving into the darkness, his secret exposed while his family frantically tries to call him. There are no calls in this scene, and the more-demonstrative Kym takes it in a different direction than Vincent. But as the creation of the utter end-of-the-rope despair, this scene is RACHEL is among the all-time greats.
The key is that the multiculti bobo-liberal me-generation narcissism — the stuff Orr would expect me to detest and vote McCain-Palin in protest (all true as far as it goes) — is just one more fact about these people. And while the film doesn’t flay them for that specifically, they are a quite seriously screwed-up family. In other words, it’s not “movie shows how liberal-Boboism screws up this family”; more like, “here’s a liberal-Bobo family, and boy are they screwed-up … and here’s how they live and survive, after their fashion.” Leaving it up to us to decide whether we find them attractive.
As an objective dramatic fact, the wedding party goes on too long (that’s the only thing keeping RACHEL as low as #4 fernow) … long after I got the point and far too long to simply watch an event to which I could react only with boredom or cynical amusement. But a part of me also understands the thematic import of having the “drama” (word used deliberately) recede into the background and just show people enjoying themselves at a party. The fact is that Rachel’s wedding is not about Kym, nor should any wedding be about the latest crisis of the bride’s sister. We only see Kym en passant during the reception, except for a scene where she silently walks away.
RACHEL GETTING MARRIED has plenty of antecedents — the most obvious and deepest being the first Danish Dogme film, THE CELEBRATION (which I heartily recommend): shot on video, similar hand-held shooting style, similar narrative hook (a family gathering that starts falling apart with a public toast). I’d also mention THE ICE STORM (ditto): enervation in the rich Connecticut suburbs. And the films of Robert Altman (I’ve not seen his A WEDDING, but the overlapping dialog style and naturalistic recording and the gathering of a large crowd is pure Altman anyway). Incredibly though, RACHEL improves on all these: less sensationalistic and cut-and-dried than the Vinterberg; more emotionally involving than the Lee; and better-focused on about three characters than some of Altman’s Big-Cast Movies (as in real life, main characters whom we get to know function as persons, while lesser characters mostly function as Signifiers). There’s even echoes of the greatest-ever “family quarrel” movie, Bergman’s AUTUMN SONATA — in an emotionally-needy child who’s her own worst enemy in some ways, and in an ending (I will be vague) that implies through open-ended wistfulness two things at once: the realization that the emotionally-grueling events we’ve just seen might be repeated, or might never have the chance to be repeated, and it’s hard to say which is more terrifying. Yes, I just compared a Jonathan Demme joint to Ingmar Bergman.
¹ Regardless of the success Theron had and that Hathway deserves to have, it’s hard not to ask myself: why do attractive actresses feel they HAVE to “ugly-up,” but not attractive actors? Best answer I can give really is that a man without sex appeal has a better chance of becoming a star in the first place than a woman without sex appeal, so the unsexy roles for men have plenty of takers not needing to be transformed.
² I speak as someone who thinks therapists are the witch doctors of our secularized society, or maybe gypsy fortune-tellers running a racket.