Thursday, March 12, 2009

Truth in Advertising

Rachel Getting Married
DVD via DVD Play

I'm trying to slog through all the major Oscar-nominated films at this time this year, and we're off to a moderately rousing start. The Visitor, though quiet, was lovely and its lead performance was completely worthy of the Best Actor nomination it garnered. I'm going to give Best Original Screenplay loser In Bruges another shot here in a second. But first: Rachel Getting Married.

This turned out to be a great early choice for my "see all the nominated movies or else get bored and stop" challenge. For a couple of reasons. First, it's a beautiful-looking movie, lit like a thesis class and directed with masterly control by Jonathan Demme, patron saint of the neverending handheld tracking shot. Demme, among other movies you have may have seen, directed the miraculous Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, one of the very small handful of films I watch upwards of ten times a year and enjoy a bit more each time. (Actually, that and The Big Lebowski might be the whole list. Must remember to keep count this year.) Roger Ebert's annoyingly perceptive review notes how the camera's perspective behaves like a guest at a real wedding, pausing on certain unidentified but familiar faces and circling around to show who else is present but not speaking.

Demme's movie is a bit of a smorgasbord. You can watch the central plot, which is satisfying if a little heavy and bland by itself. You can sample the music of all different kinds that is such a constant presence -- Rachel's wedding has live klezmer, reggae toasting, New Orleans jazz, hip-hop, Tunde Adebimpe, Indian chants, and Robyn Hitchcock -- and makes its own possibly contradictory statements about the film's imagery. You could go through like a season of "The Wire" and try to learn every single character's name and their function, because this is the sort of movie where even people with few or no lines have precisely defined roles. You could try to watch Anne Hathaway's bathtub scene in slo-mo to catch a glimpse of her nipples, although it'd be an inefficient use of your time since she was so free with the girls in Havoc and Brokeback Mountain. I just mention it as another example of the richness of Rachel Getting Married. It's a film with a lot to offer.

The one sort of concern I had while viewing the film had to do with its newfound status as Hathaway's Oscar picture. She didn't win, but on the whole the ceremony played like a "welcome to the A-list, baby" coronation. She got a cameo in Hugh Jackman's opening number that brought the house down, and of all the subjects of the "former winner delivers effusive praise" speeches given for the presentation of the acting awards, Hathaway received the biggest fawning double-barreled blast. The only trouble is, she has to win in the next few years or else she'll get paranoid and start making only prestige (i.e., money-losing) pictures. Then the Academy will have to throw her a bone and reward her an statuette she hasn't earned just so she'll go back to being profitable. Not that I am suggesting that this is anything like what happened to Kate Winslet this year, beating out our girl Anne for Best Actress for a supporting role in a movie few saw and nobody liked.

The trouble is, while Hathaway is certainly the lead in Rachel Getting Married, her character and her struggles are hardly the entire point of the film. Jenny Lumet's script gives Hathaway's Kym a pretty typical Hollywood drug addiction, complete with an overdramatic precipitating event (a car wreck that kills a family member) and a bunch of codependent relations who fill in roles like subheadings in a psychology textbook. There's the mother whose unresolved feelings of guilt cause her to shut the rest out, the overcompensating father who tries to give double the love to the kids who remain, and the bitter "good" sister (that'd be Rachel) who has become as paranoid as the addict. They all fight with each other, a lot (Debra Winger and Hathaway exchange blows to the face, closed-fist punches not slaps, at one point), and then they hug and they cry. If that makes it sound kind of like Ordinary People with nuptials, so be it. I'll say it again, the mere plot is incidental to Demme's accomplishment here.

If this wasn't as intelligent a movie as it is, it would make the plot its whole point. Kym's self-destructiveness would somehow endanger Rachel's wedding to Sidney (Adebimpe) and the sisters would have to Come to Terms with Things after Kym saved the ceremony at the last minute. That would be garbage. There's never any question that Sidney and Rachel are getting hitched, the movie doesn't kid itself that Kym and Rachel are going to work out their problems with their mother in a weekend, and instead of an extended climax of more shouting the film glides to a close with an extended montage of music, bright colors, smiling faces, and constant movement.

The point is that love and marriage (and death and divorce) renew families; if Kym and Rachel will never have their brother Ethan back, or their mother back the way she was before he died, now they are lucky enough to have the gentle, decent Sidney (Adebimpe's body language in his scenes with Hathaway, even though the two exchange no lines, is note-perfect) in addition to his radiant younger sister, loyal best friends, and the 45 or so musicians that seem to follow them all around caravan-style. As the movie builds towards this highly visual finish, the director changes gears and switches from a very tight, naturally lit, realistic palette to a far more gauzy, old-Hollywood pastel feel. The transition is accomplished by way of the cleansing bath scene (which does have an artistic purpose beyond nipples), which has the metaphorical effect of fogging up the camera's lens for the wedding sequence.

During the musical numbers at the reception, the outfits of everyone on the dance floor match the style being played even as that genre keeps changing, which is ridiculous given the huge variety of costumes and cultures we now to be in attendance. It's poetic license, which wouldn't have been possible or appropriate at any point in Rachel Getting Married short of the end. I don't have a big problem with that, but at a certain point Demme does go past overboard with the wanton multiculturalism -- it's an interracial wedding with bridesmaids in Indian dress, Jewish toasts, Robyn Hitchcock jamming with gypsies and their bouzoukis. Where did they hold this magical wedding, Connecticut or Sesame Street?

I don't know whether anyone else is going to have my experience watching the movie, where I got started expecting to focus primarily on Hathaway (she's good) only to realize about 25 minutes in that I was totally watching it wrong -- I should have been looking in the margins for Sidney's sister and the girls' father's second wife and the Asian-American groomsman who can't hold his liquor and sort of looks like Masuka from "Dexter" only isn't.

Marketing the movie as Hathaway's big breakthrough into the realm of serious actressdom is a disservice to the many other talented people who worked so hard to make the movie as good as it is, not least of all Lumet and Demme. The box art has a huge zoom of the star in close-up and two other figures in the background, the bride and her father. A cover that was truer to the spirit and the message of Rachel Getting Married would have a huge group of people smiling and shimmying on the dance floor, including Kym and Rachel but with no one in particular in focus. Everyone doing their own thing, having a good time being together, maybe leaning a little bit on the person next to them for a moment if they lose their balance, but mostly just doing their best to keep upright.

1 comment:

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