Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 12:54 am on March 20, 2009

Catching up on reviewing some pre-Oscar movies; this is the last of the 2008 releases, with a few 2009 releases still to come in the next week or so.

Status: Opened in limited release 10/3/08; released on DVD and Blu-ray 3/10/09
Directed By: Jonathan Demme
Written By: Jenny Lumet
Cinematographer: Declan Quinn
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Debra Winger

Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married is a movie that really wants you to think it’s not a movie. It really thinks that it makes you feel like you’re there, man. Cinematographer Declan Quinn’s camera bobs and weaves among the guests at the titular gathering, awkwardly close at times, strangely aloof at others. Demme and editor Tim Squyres take you in and out of scenes at seemingly random points, coming in to the middle of a conversation, leaving before you’ve realized the point. If this is realism to the filmmakers, I’m glad I don’t have their lives, because it’s utterly dizzying. More distracting, even, is the way it exudes a smarmy self-awareness. Look how realistic this scene feels, how we just wander amongst wedding guests only catching snippets of their conversations (and not knowing what any of them are up to). Look how “there” we are, feeling this strange scene involving a dishwasher-loading competition… and exiting from it just as a character finally starts to reveal a little emotion.

Yes, these characters have dishwasher-loading competitions. And they celebrate the joining of a white upper-middle-class family from Connecticut with a black upper-middle-class family from Hawaii with an Indian-themed wedding, for unknown reasons. The bridesmaids wear saris, the cake is shaped like a blue elephant, and all of them seem to know what’s going on, not ever feeling the least bit of desire to explain to us, the lowly audience, what they’re up to. The groom (Tunde Adebimpe) has some sort of vague musical background that inspires him to sing his vows, which go on way past the point of causing restless discomfort in a typical audience member (me), but which the fictional guests all appear to accept and appreciate without any sense of irony—and without the snickering that would certainly be present were this stunt attempted in a real-life setting.

The only character, in fact, who appears to inhabit a somewhat relatable plane of emotional existence is Kym (Anne Hathaway), the younger sister of the bride (Rosemarie DeWitt). And she’s a self-centered bitch who expects everybody around her—especially her immediate family—to go out of their way to recognize her for the special little flower she is. Hathaway is oddly compelling in this role, embodying the character’s myriad emotions with screen-commanding ease. She makes us alternate between feeling sorry for Kym and hating her. (In contrast to the rest of the characters, who I hated quite thoroughly…).

The main story is of Kym, who is granted leave from a rehab facility in order to attend her sister’s wedding. Rachel does, in fact, get married, and over the course of the weekend the family’s dysfunctional relationships and a past tragedy are revealed. The way this film is put together, though, makes the experience of seeing it like watching a movie via peripheral vision: you sort of catch glimpses of what’s happening and where these characters come from, but you only rarely are afforded the opportunity to look at things head-on. There is a notable exception, of course, centering around a scene with Kym and her mother (Debra Winger); such scenes are Rachel Getting Married‘s primary draw, and they’re good enough to make it not completely unwatchable, though sparse enough to not actually make it a compelling film overall.

I’ve recently been acquainting myself with some of the films of the so-called “mumblecore” movement (a couple of my favorite examples include Funny Ha Ha and The Puffy Chair), and I found—somewhat to my surprise—that Rachel Getting Married had a lot in common with the genre: loosely-structured, conversation-based storytelling, plot points that are subtle more often than they are revelatory, and an almost exclusive use of handheld, in-the-midst-of-the-action camera work. What Demme’s film suffers from, though, is one of pedigree: he’s not making this movie look bad or feel sloppy out of necessity, as is the case with the low-budget mumblecore offerings; he’s doing it for contrived style points, and trying much too hard while somehow managing to completely miss the genuine feel and tone that the truly indie films have as their most defining characteristic. Hathaway’s performance is captivating enough to carry the film on its own, but good as it is it’s not enough to completely overshadow the film’s stylistic shortcomings; they feel false because they are, and that fact ends up creating a largely unsatisfying experience.