Saturday, October 4, 2008

Decline the Invitation

Rachel Getting Married
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Written by Jenny Lumet
Starring Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Tunde Adebimpe, Anna Deavere Smith, Anisa George, Debra Winger
Opens October 3, 2008

Hathaway and DeWitt in
Rachel Getting Married
What happened to Jonathan Demme?

The talented director’s career began so auspiciously and in such a satisfyingly low-key fashion with the charmingly eccentric character studies as Citizens Band, Something Wild, Married to the Mob and that unheralded masterpiece, Melvin and Howard. The director then lost his way after winning an Oscar for directing the unnerving The Silence of the Lambs, concentrating on competent, unnecessary remakes (The Truth about Charlie, The Manchurian Candidate) and modest documentaries (Neil Young: Heart of Gold, Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains). It seems there’s no way back to his early glory days, and Rachel Getting Married–which desperately wants to be a return to form–holds true to recent form.

The main culprit is the mawkish script by Jenny Lumet (director Sidney Lumet’s daughter), combining wooden caricatures with clich├ęd observations. The wedding of Rachel, offspring of divorced liberal parents Paul and Abby, is an occasion for the return of black-sheep daughter Kym, who’s just out of rehab and is a stick of dynamite waiting to explode during what everyone hopes is a happy reunion.

What Lumet has written should be studied in Screenwriting 101 as an example of how not to write a movie script. Sundry mundane family dilemmas are present and accounted for; the revelation of the teenaged Kym’s drug-induced accident which caused the death of a loved one is handled clumsily and insensitively. Paul seems an ineffectual husband and father (probably why Abby divorced him), but since he’s a liberal, of course he would marry Carol, an African-American–but it’s typical of the film to shy away from showing anything of their relationship.

Political correctness runs rampant: Rachel is about to marry African-American Sidney–in this bastion of Connecticut liberalism, no one bats an eye at her choice, which is fine. What’s inexcusable is–as written by Lumet and enacted by Tunde Adebimpe–Sidney is such a cipher that it’s impossible to see why lively and intelligent Rachel would want to spend her life with such a dullard.

Although Rachel is the title character, Kym is the main protagonist, dredging up old family ghosts at every turn. Screenwriter Lumet pours the usual bad-girl tics (smoking, drugs, tattoos, foul language, even sarcastic zingers!) into Kym, which does make her more fun to watch than the other zombies attending the wedding. Still, a little psychological acuity would help: it’s doubtful that, at the big rehearsal dinner, Kym would stand up and bare her old wounds with such a mortifying, self-pitying speech in front of so many people she doesn’t even know.

Shot in home-movie style by cinematographer Declan Quinn, Rachel Getting Married is another demonstration of how generous a director Demme is. Generous to a fault, actually: the off-kilter camera movements and rapid editing occasionally give us a well-observed moment of behavior from one or another of these people, yet—as with all home movies—what’s interesting for the subjects may bore those with no rooting interest (i.e., the audience). So Demme’s generosity, not only to his characters but his actors—the movie is packed with long-winded, talky sequences that go on far longer than they need to, especially the long, repetitive post-wedding reception—upends the ebb and flow he’s looking for.

As Kym, Anne Hathaway runs away with the movie by playing her first bad girl since Havoc, a straight-to-DVD melodrama about a high school delinquent. After watching her play princesses and other goody-two-shoes continuously, I’m happy to report that Hathaway can act! She grits her teeth and sprays venomous invective at everyone, even making Kym’s excursions into self-pity credible rather than laughable, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Aside from Hathaway, however, a cast of classy actors—Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Anna Deavere Smith, Anisa George—is defeated by flimsily-written characters. As for the highly touted return of Debra Winger as the girls’ mother Abby, her luminous presence is muffled by Demme, who consigns her to oblivion after the build up to Abby’s first entrance—since no one can take the spotlight away from Kym, the actress’s natural screen charisma is negated. It might not have made much difference, but Rachel Getting Married needed more Abby and less Kym to be the perceptive character study it thinks it is.

Well, there’s always Melvin and Howard.

originally posted on

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