❉ We pay tribute to Jonathan Demme.
“Rachel Getting Married is an emotionally draining and complex piece of storytelling which takes the viewer on a rollercoaster ride of genuine feelings and extremely honest moments of familial discord.”
Films like Rachel Getting Married remind you of how powerful and intimate filmmaking and storytelling can be. Directed by the recently-departed Jonathan Demme and written by screenwriter Jenny Lumet (Sidney Lumet’s daughter, this film interestingly being her only screen credit), the film takes an up-close-and-personal look at a multicultural wedding in a liberal enclave of Connecticut which leads down some dark and troubling paths while finally arriving at well-earned catharsis for the major characters. An actor’s showcase, Rachel Getting Married features a trio of remarkable performances from Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Bill Irwin, all of whom deserved Oscar consideration (only Hathaway got traction). Shot in a rough and tumble, Dogme-esque fashion by Demme and his versatile cinematographer Declan Quinn (In America, Pride & Glory), Rachel Getting Married carries an extremely immediate and realistic tone. This is an emotionally draining and complex piece of storytelling which takes the viewer on a rollercoaster ride of genuine feelings and extremely honest moments of familial discord. Similar in style and tone to Susanne Bier’s incredible After the Wedding and clearly inspired by the films of Robert Altman, Demme and Lumet crafted one of the best films of 2008 with this edgy, piercing look at how some families are able to come together even during the harshest of situations and circumstances.
The plot is wonderfully simple yet extremely layered. Kym (Hathaway, never better) is let out of rehab for the weekend in order to attend her sister’s wedding. Her sister, Rachel (DeWitt, perfectly cast), is getting married to an African-American musician named Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe, a real life multi-hyphenate artist). Kym and Rachel’s divorced father, Paul (Bill Irwin, shattering), is hosting the wedding at his house, along with his second wife Carol (Anna Deavere Smith). Their mother, Abby (Debra Winger, forceful in her few scenes), makes a fleeting but integral appearance at the ceremony/reception. Various bands are performing at the wedding (including former Soft Boy Robyn Hitchcock) and are seen practicing all throughout the film in the background. Eschewing a traditional musical score, Demme allows the music of the bands to amplify many scenes in a very unique way. The film has a straight-forward narrative that is powered by an intense family dynamic created by the wonderful and totally committed cast. Often times feeling like it could have been a play before becoming a feature, Rachel Getting Married has been given a lived-in authenticity which heightens every single moment of the film. And above all else, the acting is truly exceptional.
Hathaway, who before this (and after) has never been given a meatier role (well, she was very strong in Love & Other Drugs, which I feel is underrated in general), delivers nothing less than a tour de force performance of raw, wounded vulnerability. Kym is totally damaged goods and you know it right from the beginning. With her cigarettes dangling precariously from her lips and with her skittish attitude firmly in place, she’s exactly the kind of unpredictable woman that trouble always seems to find. In rehab to kick various addictions, which ultimately played a part in the death of her younger brother many years ago, Hathaway channels something inside of her that she’s never been asked to find before as an actress: True Soul. She’s been an empty vessel of chic good-looks in studio crap like Get Smart, Bride Wars, and The Devil Wears Prada, and while she was a solid supporting presence in Brokeback Mountain, that film belonged to Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. Yes, she showed off those terrific singing pipes in Les Miserables, she was well cast and effective in The Dark Knight Returns, and as I mentioned earlier, she did cut a convincing portrait of a young woman suffering from the onset of Parkinsons disease in Ed Zwick’s sexy romantic dramedy Love & Other Drugs. But it’s her revelatory work in Rachel Getting Married that got me to really pay attention to her as an artist, and I’d love to see her do something like again, where she’s allowed to cut deep to the bone with the character she takes on. She truly owned the screen in Rachel Getting Married, and there are a few scenes in the film that are almost too hard to watch. She handles the various meltdowns with an emotional intensity that seems painfully real yet never cliché or over-the-top. And wait until you hear her misguided toast at the rehearsal dinner – it’s a doozy. Characters like Kym are tricky because they are inherently unlikable, so it’s a testament to Hathaway’s abilities that you end up really caring about her. You want to help her even if she is well beyond help.
DeWitt, in a possibly trickier role, has to play the “good” sister to Hathaway’s “bad” sister. Allowing a role like this to become one-note was a real possibility. It’s the way in which DeWitt humanizes Rachel that the audience feels compelled to root for her. Rachel is like most brides; it’s her wedding and she wants everything to go perfect. She doesn’t want Kym stealing the spotlight and there is a real sense, especially in her earlier scenes, that Rachel is deeply disappointed with Kym for a variety of reasons. She’s critical of yet sympathetic to her damaged sister, and on more than once occasion, DeWitt elicits a genuine sisterly bond with Hathaway that feels totally real and true. They are women who were brought up in an upper middle class household, given whatever they wanted, and raised by parents who loved them and who supported their decisions. Regardless of the drama that has been injected into their lives, Rachel and Kym are joined at the hip in many respects. Whether or not Rachel wants to accept that fact is another story. DeWitt brings a level of sophistication and confidence to the role of Rachel which plays off of Kym’s weariness and open hostility.
But the film’s most heartbreaking performance, in my eyes, belongs to Irwin, as the beleaguered patriarch. In a tireless performance, Irwin has to be up one moment, down the next, and always ready for something new and potentially earth-shaking to occur. Paul has to be best friends to both of his very different daughters, something I am sure real life fathers have to do on a daily basis. Without ever letting Kym or Rachel feel like he’s taking sides, he has to appease both of them throughout the entire film, always waiting for the other shoe to drop. And not only does he have two emotionally demanding daughters to deal with, he’s got to contend with the presence of his bitter ex-wife while still dealing with the death of his son, something that he clearly still dwells on. There is a scene I will simply call the “dishwashing scene” which ranks as my favorite scene in the film. In its quiet power, you get a sense of who Paul is as a man, and through Irwin’s delicate performance, you grow to really love him as a person. It’s a crime that Irwin wasn’t saluted by the Academy with a supporting actor nomination, if not the win. In a film filled with perfect performances, this was my favourite.
Demme has had an eclectic career to say the least. In the 80’s he shot to stardom with off-beat comedies like Swing Shift, Something Wild, and Married to the Mob. Then, in 1991, he won an Oscar for his brilliant direction of The Silence of the Lambs, which is one of the best American movies of the last 25 years. Next to be released was the AIDS drama Philadelphia, another critical and box office success. Then came a run of disappointments; Beloved was impassioned but ill-conceived and The Truth About Charlie was an especially egregious misfire, a stylishly hollow remake of Stanley Donen’s masterwork Charade. The less said about that one the better. Demme then rebounded with his criminally underrated remake of the classic spy thriller The Manchurian Candidate, which featured a fantastic, against-type performance from Denzel Washington. The then went on to direct some documentaries (Neil Young: Heart of Gold and Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains). After Rachel Getting Married arrived a slew more documentaries, some dips into television (his work on HBO’s Enlightened was inspired), and this year marked his return to the feature format with a new music-themed movie with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline. He was a filmmaker turned on by music and the power of rhythm, a filmmaker with a very controlled and deliberate style, up until Rachel Getting Married, which feels purposefully sloppy. The off-the-cuff visual style created by Demme and cinematographer Quinn, who has worked with Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan on a few occasions, employs skewed angles, always with a jerky, hand-held camera, which creates a feeling of cinema-verite immediacy that pumps the film up with raw, unpredictable edge. It’s like a Dogme film in many ways, with no artificial music, no extraneous lighting, no digital special effects. Just honest to goodness emotions and pathos and clear headed filmmaking.
Rachel Getting Married stood as one of the best films from 2008 for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was its power to hold the audience riveted by its use of words and narrative force. Lumet’s sensitive, sometimes angry, always generous script has a distinct New England ear for dialogue and speech cadence, which informs it with a sense of authenticity. Lumet’s characters, no matter how sad, mean, or conflicted that they may be, all have the ability to generate sympathy and empathy, a task not often achieved by the writer. If the film feels New Wave-y, well, it does so for a reason; Demme and Lumet are interested in what’s happening in the moment for their characters and how their life decisions will affect all of those around them. They aren’t distracted by artifice and pretension and are always looking for the root of any given moment. This is definitely one of the quintessential wedding films, and Lumet has stated that she was inspired by Robert Altman’s 1978 film A Wedding while writing her screenplay. Emulating Altman isn’t the worst thing to attempt, and with Rachel Getting Married, Lumet crafted a poignant and deeply personal work of art that when combined with Demme’s organic, virtually faultless direction, resulted in a small but masterful slice of family dramatics.
What’s left to say about Jonathan Demme? Any self-respecting film lover would include him or at least a few of his efforts on mental lists of great filmmakers/great cinema, and the thing I’ll miss the most about him will be his eclecticism and the soulful quality that he brought to all of his films. Just look at his filmography; there wasn’t a genre that he seemed uninterested in, his documentary work was superlative, and his ability to jump back and forth between star driven studio pictures and risky, smaller endeavours is an enviable quality that I’m betting other filmmakers wish they possessed.
Demme always got to the root of the scene by way of his character’s feelings and the world around them. Look at Jeff Daniels in Something Wild, Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington in Philadelphia, the warm empathy he often had for his legendary documentary subjects or how he subverted our expectations with an emotionally fragile Denzel Washington in his ballsy and vastly underrated remake of The Manchurian Candidate.
Demme was a storyteller who took chances and never felt like repeating himself, and who understood that filmmaking is a delicate balancing act of tone and intent. There isn’t a work by Demme that I’m not intrigued by in one way or another, and the cinematic landscape is considerably weakened now that his idiosyncratic, tender, and confident voice has been silenced. Rest In Power, Mr. Demme, and thanks for memories past and future enjoyment.
❉ Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott, and co-operates the website Podcasting Them Softly.
❉ He is also a regular contributor for MovieViral.com, a site dedicated to providing the best news and analysis on viral marketing and ARG campaigns for films and other forms of entertainment.