Sunday, November 23, 2008

Review: Rachel Getting Married

I say this as an absolute avid movie watcher. Over the past few months, cinema began to lose its luster. I saw movies I liked and would probably recommend to a friend, but which I more or less stopped thinking about the moment the lights went up in the theater. I would go to Blockbuster and scan the entire New Release section and not see a single movie I was really dying to see. I would sit through the previews before a movie, my absolute favorite part of the movie going experience (I must get to a movie at least a half hour early to ensure that I do not miss a single preview), and not be interested in even one of the eight movies being previewed. And this all made me very sad. Because like I said, I love movies. I love what it feels like to sit through a great movie in a theater and know that you're sharing that experience with all of these complete strangers; how for a couple of hours there is no other world but the one on the screen in front of you. I think film at its best can be true art, a valuable and important method of storytelling. But lately I was starting to lose that faith in movies. And then tonight I saw "Rachel Getting Married."

"Rachel Getting Married" tells the story of a former junkie named Kym (Anne Hathaway) who leaves rehab for a weekend in order to go home and attend the wedding of her older sister, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). Family drama ensues. Those two sentences pretty much sum up the meat and potatoes of the plot. The brilliance of this film lies in the breadth and scope of the world that is created within the confines of that rather familiar story. Kym is a self-obsessed, self-destructive, self-loathing addict. She's appalingly selfish at times. She's the kind of person who, as a friend, you would have given up on long ago. But with the pull that only family can have, she re-enters the lives of her relatively well adjusted and happy sister and parents and drags them into the painful, ugly reality of her inner world. I know a lot of praise has been heaped on Anne Hathaway for this role, and I loved her before I saw this movie. But she just gives the kind of performance that makes you hurt. She's so honest, so visceral, so brutally raw that it's all you can do not to gasp out loud at the sheer force of her performance. Gone are all signs of movie star glamour. She spends the film peering out with big eyes from a jagged and choppy mass of hair. She takes on all of the ugliness and pain of this very messed up character, and never once panders for the sympathy of the audience. And because of that, by the end of the film, the audience, like this woman's family, has no choice but to feel something for her-whether its anger or pity or some mixture of both. Her presence is simply too magnetic to not engage.

Yet one of the many remarkable parts about "Rachel Getting Married" is that Kym isn't the movie. This story could so easily have veered into Lifetime territory if it was only about an addict's road to recovery and the damage they have inflicted on themselves and the ones they love. Like the title suggets, this movie is largely about Rachel getting married. Rachel, as played by Rosemarie DeWitt, is in some ways the heart of the film. In terms of Kym, she experiences what the audience experiences, a strong desire to hate this person for being so selfish tempered with an equally strong desire to want to fix her, to find a way to bring her into a place of love. DeWitt is lovely and heartbreaking. She quietly grounds the movie with her often tested grace.

Shot in a handheld style, the movie follows the events of the wedding weekend at the family's Conneticut home. The director, Jonathan Demme, with a poetic eye for detail, does something very un-movie like. He lets the events roll out unhurriedly, at their own pace, and takes time to linger on the tiniest, most ordinary kind of moments. What other major film would spend huge chunks of time on rehearsal dinner toasts given by characters that aren't even named and which don't in any way advance the plot? There's never a rush in this movie, never a sense that you're jumping from one plot forwarding device to another. You're simply in these people's world, allowed access to their most intimate moments, and because of that you get to know these characters in a way that you don't really get in other movies. They're not simply characters with a capital C whose actions advance the plot, capital P. They're people who are trying their best to enjoy their wedding weekend, people trying and sometimes failing to say and do the right thing, people that are rendered with so much humanity and grace and truth that the last thing you could do would be to judge them.

I've mentioned Hathaway and DeWitt, but there are so many wonderful performances in this movie. From Bill Irwin, as the sweet and gentle father whose tremendous, stubborn love for his broken daughter is palpable every moment he's on screen, to Debra Winger, Kym's mother, who reacts in the complete opposite way, choosing distance and coldness as her methods of dealing with her daughter's crimes. And the screen is just filled with a hundred memorable faces and voices. From very early on you're surrounded by this mesh of people, and like I said, despite the fact that many of them have nothing at all to do with the story, they're never treated as extras or background players. Demme films the movie in some ways like an actual wedding photographer-content to drift and stray from the wedding party for stretches, trusting that their presence informs the entire event, even when they're not on camera. And even with the drifting and the tangents, Demme never loses sight of what the movie's about, the dynamics of the relationships in this family, how it's possible for there to be so much anger mixed with so much love. There's a deep and permanent tragedy at the center of this family, and it forms the center of the movie. But it doesn't overtake it. Juxtaposed with incredibly painful mentions of the tragedy, there are moments of levity and kindness and beauty. And really that's what "Rachel Getting Married" is, a series of juxtapositions, a constantly shifting balance between the ugliest realities and the warmest, most wonderful ones. When Kym comes home she acts as a catalyst. She heightens everything and opens wounds. But in a way it's almost catharsis, for her family and for the film. After the grief and the hurt there comes joy. And joy tempered with memories of pain is perhaps the purest kind there is. It's the joy that knows to appreciate a moment as it happens, because life won't always be so good.

So in summary, I loved this movie. I loved it in a way that I haven't loved a movie in a long time. I know it will stay with me, the raw and devastating parts that made me cry as well as the light, gentle moments. I think a movie like this is very difficult to do well. In some ways it reminded of the reason it's so hard to write a good short story. Because in the perfect short story not a lot needs to or should happen, but a lot needs to conveyed. Hemingway wrote perhaps the greatest short story of all time, a masterpiece called "Hills Like White Elephants." It's incredibly short and it consists of two people talking in a train station. If you haven't read it, please google it and do it now. It won't take very long. But anyways, the story isn't plot driven. Nothing explodes. The world doesn't need to be saved. But by the end of it Hemingway has done something truly extraordinary. Without feeding us exposition, without spelling out the history of this couple, he gives us their world. By letting us into this tiny, unremarkable moment and presenting it just as it is, without the need for fancy language or a crazy plot twist, by just giving us this window into these people's lives, he tells us a story about so many things, fear and regret and a deep, abiding grief for what's to come. Every time I read it, I shake my head, because it takes tremendous courage for a writer to strip a story down to just what is necessary and still trust that it will be compelling. "Rachel Getting Married" does that. Demme shakes off the standard movie making props of exposition or backstory or a likeable main character; hell he even strips the film of a soundtrack (the audience hears only the music that the characters hear). He discards all of the things that are so heavily relied on in most movies, because he trusts the audience and he trusts his characters. And by taking this risk he does what Hemingway did, the rarest and most rewarding gift a reader or an audience member can recieve. We don't just get characters or a plot. We get a world.

"Rachel Getting Married" is by far the best movie I've seen this year. It was soul stirringly, movie-going faith reaffirming good.

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