Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Can We Skip the Reception?

By Josh R
There are moments when I get why people — specifically, the sort of people who exult the virtues of “the heartland” — can’t stand all us crackpot, bleeding heart, hippy-dippy liberals. I had one of those moments watching Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, ostensibly a film about dysfunctional family relationships but really more of a patchwork paean to multiculturalism and progressive left-wing attitudes, and a rather self-congratulatory one at that.

As the title suggests, the film takes place at a wedding — not just any wedding, mind you, but the kind that would send an over-the-hill ACLU lawyer still pining for the glory days of Ann Arbor into fits of ecstasy. The bride is white, the groom is black, the guests represent every color and creed under the sun, the theme is Indian (as in: the bridesmaids wear saris and the wedding cake is adorned with the figure of a large spangled elephant), and the guitars and tambourines are out in full force. Seemingly every musician and performance artist from within a 12 mile radius of Ulster County has been recruited to participate in the nuptial festivities — this means we hear everything from reggae music performed on kettle drums to modern indie folk rock to wailing Yoko Ono types. Basically, it’s Woodstock with place settings and a good champagne. Now, all of this might make sense in a film that was sending up the pretensions of liberalism as a cultural attitude, but Rachel is enacted with an entirely straight face and without a trace of irony. The kids who are too cool for school (but took tons of critical theory courses) are showing us how hip and evolved they are, and patting themselves on the back for it. As someone who’s been to a few Williamsburg coffee houses in my time, I can tell you that a little of this particular brand of self-absorption goes a long way — and is fairly intolerable in large quantities. By the time the Brazilian Carnivale dancers in feather headdresses arrive to form a conga line, I would have welcomed a canned recording of Karen Carpenter singing “Close to You” as if someone had tossed me a life ring.

The plot of Rachel Getting Married is virtually beside the point; it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the movie Demme really wanted to make was a concert film, until some savvy producer badgered him into padding it out with an actual storyline. Kym, played by Anne Hathaway (with badly cropped hair and raccoon-eye makeup to let us know she’s edgy, misunderstood and has tons of emotional baggage), is a recovering druggie just sprung from rehab to participate in her sister’s wedding. Old wounds are reopened and administered with heaping spoonfuls of salt en route to the big day, as Kym must confront the sins of her past and her unresolved feelings toward her nearest and dearest. Hathaway is fine in what seems like a foolproof role for an actress aiming to show that she can stretch. It’s one that’s been played so many times that it contains very little surprise at this point, and to be honest, the performance doesn’t have a fraction of the depth or originality that, say, Jennifer Jason Leigh brought to Georgia. Whenever a squeaky-clean good girl takes on an edgy bad girl role, critical hosannahs are never far behind; Hathaway is not a bad actress, but Rachel Getting Married doesn’t reveal any new wrinkles to her talent — and really, given what an attention-grabing role it is, it doesn’t really represent much of a risk for her. Better is Rosemarie De Witt as the titular bride, although the character is outlined in such vague terms that there really isn’t very much she can do with it. Lagging far behind the women is Bill Irwin, a very fine stage actor whose performance as the father is a bit too ingratiating to be entirely convincing; Anna Deveare Smith is thoroughly wasted in the role of the sympathetic stepmother.

The most interesting performance in the film is given by Debra Winger as Abby, the curiously detached mother who has withdrawn from her family to such an extent that her appearance at her own daughter’s wedding has an uncomfortable air of formality. Abby is hardly the emotionally barren, tightly wound bitch from Ordinary People — it is clear that she still loves her daughters, and still feels the tug of the parent-child bond; she has simply compartmentalized her feelings to such an extent that she can no longer comfortably acknowledge them. Winger could do wonders with this role — frankly, she does small wonders with what little she has — but is both criminally underused and badly betrayed by the film’s editing. The most loaded scene in Rachel Getting Married is the inevitable confrontation between Kym and Abby; Demme abruptly cuts away from it before it’s reached a natural conclusion, leaving both the actresses and the audiences high and dry. Ultimately, I’m not sure drama has very much place in Rachel Getting Married — it would detract too much focus from the kettle drums, the Bollywood decor and the conga line.

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Generally I liked the movie more than you, but I agree that the damn wedding was ridiculous to the point of being distracting. If one is trying to make a movie about trauma and realism, then why mire it down in an oddball frame? A few cuts here and there and this could have been a bourgeious farce.

It's like the unholy child of Thomas Vinterberg and Wes Anderson.
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