Have I ever mentioned the time that I picked Anne Hathaway to be the biggest star to emerge from Brokeback Mountain? I love that story!
Most critics treated the performance kindly but lightly, seeing only another Disney teen queen trying to stretch her career beyond drinking age. More astute observers (aka: “me”) saw a classic beauty riding into the movie like a star, convincingly portraying 20 years of life in 15 minutes, and nailing her one big scene. While she hasn’t always been perfect since, I admire the way she has taken her job seriously and studiously.
So it means something when I say even I didn’t know she had this in her. By this, I mean her astounding performance at the center of Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married. The first stage of stardom is finding a bankable screen persona. The second stage comes from bravely smashing through it. The sound you hear is of shattering glass. It’s no longer a question of whether Hathaway can be this good. It’s now a matter of whether she can ever be this good again. Clean for nine months as a drug rehab careerist, Hathaway’s Kym Buchman returns to her family’s blue-blood Connecticut estate to attend her sister Rachel’s wedding. Rachel (Mad Men’s Rosemarie DeWitt) has lived her whole life in the shadow of her sister’s drama, addiction, and endless need for attention.
She wants her wedding day to Sidney – a sari-wrapped Bollywood spectacular – to be her one day at the center of family life, a mission that goes predictably haywire when her sister arrives. The sisters share an opposite’s admiration for one another. But they bicker religiously. They each own a piece of the family’s wounding secret – a tragedy created by Kym’s addiction. Raining on this wedding are unspoken words, collective guilt, and the difficulties of forging forgiveness. The family dynamic is haunted. But it isn’t hateful. That’s an important thing to keep in mind.
Upon placing a ring on his bride’s finger, the groom (Tunde Adebimpe of the band TV on the Radio), a professional musician, breaks into an a capella rendition of Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend.” But the Young song best fitting the film is “The Needle and the Damage Done.” If every junkie is like a setting sun, then Kym is clawing at the horizon, refusing to go gently into the darkness.
The cigarettes that rarely leave Kym’s lips signal fear, desperation, paranoia, self-loathing, any number of things. They guard her sobriety and, possibly, express a longing for a speedy death. Her self-deprecating personality is a mad scramble of defense mechanisms designed to preemptively soften her next slip. She feels a deep need for love, but also a deep fear of its potential for rejection, and her caustic nature sabotages her best intentions. Yet she isn’t dead. She is the lively one. The witty one. And you see why the family, despite her worst, doesn’t want to lose her.
Her selfish, painful toast at the rehearsal dinner turns into a disaster of 12-step exhibitionism, self-loathing, affection, and a sincere apology spoken in a gallows humor that can’t help but come across badly. Yet there’s something to be said for it. It’s the most alive and deeply felt of all the speeches, the least practiced and polished, the single one that couldn’t be repeated at any wedding.
Most choose to see the story as the assassination of the perfect wedding by the attention whore Kym Buchman. That’s certainly how Rachel sees it. But that thinking goes a little too far in choosing sides. To outsiders, the family has a talent for stealth public relations, the carefully considered word, a willingness to favor image over reality (a fact that slightly contributes to the tragedy).The exuberant headache that is Kym – for better and worse, in sickness and in health – forces the family to own up to its reality. Rachel Getting Married is about struggling for the perfect wedding and finding the acceptably and therapeutically imperfect one in its place.
While it’s easier to play the role with the audience’s sympathy, DeWitt brings fierce, layered intelligence to the overlooked bride. Bill Irwin, as the father riding the line between loving and enabling, is the film’s quiet marvel. Debra Winger as the distant mother, enters the film with the panache and mystery that should emanate from a vanished star. Some would like an Oscar nod. But one would only be for Hollywood’s sins against 50-year-old actresses.
No one is ready to admit it yet, but Rachel Getting Married is a better film than Demme’s Silence of the Lambs. His approaches – handheld camerawork, overlapping dialogue, the loose vibe – all take risks and mostly work. He gets wonderfully rewarded by his willingness to allow his creators the room to create. Some critics have made noise about the presence of recognizable musical stars friendly to Demme – a violation, they feel, of the film’s verite leanings. But a director earns his indulgences. Demme definitely earns them here.
Declan Quinn’s hand-held camera becomes beautifully embedded in the ceremony. The debut script by Jenny Lumet, the daughter of director Sidney and granddaughter of Lena Horne, pays for its occasional narrative conveniences with impeccable characterization and emotion. We don’t often talk about casting directors, so send a big Sarah Palin wink to Bernard Telsey. Every last actor, down to the 12-steppers and the cowboy-shirt relative, finds the right feel.
Some critics have stressed the film’s moments of joy, love, and redemption. But that description is misleading. I don’t pretend to say that this sad, sad story is an easy film. But it is the type of film that a critic sits in the dark for 52 weeks a year to get two hours of.