Friday, October 31, 2008

Rachel Getting Married: Toxic guest

Rachel Getting Married (2008) • View trailer for Rachel Getting Married
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, dramatic intensity, brief sensuality and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.23.08
Buy DVD: Rachel Getting Married • Buy Blu-Ray: Rachel Getting Married [Blu-ray]

I survived Robert Mitchum's psychopathic preacher from Night of the Hunter, albeit while peeking between my 9-year-old fingers.

I made it through the final scene in Carrie, back in the day before "gotcha epilogues" became a cliché. I marched into the night on wobbly legs after John Carpenter's first Halloween, but nonetheless moved under my own power. I weathered both the first Alien and Anthony Hopkins' debut performance as Hannibal Lecter, in Silence of the Lambs.
As the tumultuous weekend proceeds, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt, right)
becomes increasingly irritated by the behavior of her dysfunctional sister, Kym
(Anne Hathaway), who can't seem to survive without being the center of
attention. Rarely has sibling rivalry been more pregnant with unspoken
complaints and buried hostility ... and this is merely the beginning.

I also recall, at a young age when my parents should have known better, cowering behind an armchair as a giant spider — no doubt so hokey that I'd laugh at it today — menaced the jungle lord in one of Johnny Weissmuller's numerous grade-Z Tarzan entries. (Indiana Jones doesn't do snakes. I don't do spiders.)

But nothing has ever, ever scared me as much as Anne Hathaway's fumble for the microphone during the rehearsal dinner scene in Rachel Getting Married.

I didn't just want to crawl under the chair; I wanted to flee the county. Anything to prevent having to endure the slow emotional explosion about to erupt on the screen.

Director Jonathan Demme's new film, graced with a raw and sharply observant script from Jenny Lumet — daughter of director Sidney Lumet — is a painfully intimate examination of a dysfunctional family brought together for a wedding ceremony that takes place over one tumultuous weekend.

It's a fascinating, cleverly assembled film, and profoundly difficult to watch. On the one hand, I can't imagine recommending it as a good time at the movies; on the other hand, Hathaway delivers a starring performance that's as fearless, blunt and exposed as anything you're likely to see this year ... or next.

I'm generally not a fan of video verité; thus far, the gimmick has been employed mostly to conceal the weak, logically bankrupt storytelling in low-rent horror quickies like The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield and the just-released Quarantine.

But just as it took a director with Alfred Hitchcock's chops to show how 3D cinematography really should be used — back in the 1950s, with Dial M for Murder — Demme and cinematographer Declan Quinn have exploited high-def video in a way that not only makes perfect sense, but forcefully complements the story being told.

Indeed, about halfway through the film, I stopped noticing the jiggly camerawork and often under- or overexposed lighting, and felt like I had become part of the newly extended Buchman family celebration ... which, of course, was precisely Demme's intent.

The film begins as Kym (Hathaway), the family's long-estranged daughter, is given a weekend pass from rehab to attend the wedding of her sister, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). Our first glimpse of Kym is stark and grim: The young woman is dressed completely in black, a cigarette forever dangling like the emotional crutch it is; her nervous, brittle attempts at conversation as razor-sharp as her spiked, jet-black hair.

She's clearly a walking time-bomb, and there's no doubt she'll go off, and repeatedly; the only question is how many people she'll take with her.

Kym's homecoming is awkward, to say the least. Her father, Paul (Bill Irwin), is overly solicitous while trying to appear as though he isn't; we gradually learn that the woman at his side is his second wife, and begin to perceive the degree to which Kym's behavior has destroyed her original family.

Rachel, superficially pleased to see her sister, almost immediately finds herself refereeing a crisis, because Kym expected to be the maid of honor ... and isn't.

The details regarding Kym's previous transgressions — the many years of drug abuse, detox and rehab — emerge gradually, in ugly bursts; obviously incapable of any level of actual honesty, she abuses the "make amends" portion of the 12-step program as a way of calling further attention to herself. Her entire life, it would seem, has been one long desperate cry for help, and she's not about to stop now, even though this weekend is supposed to belong to her sister.

And when we finally learn about the actual event that forever fractured the Buchmans — an act for which Kym obviously can't ever forgive herself, let alone expect others to move on — the entire nuptual gathering stands exposed as the charade it actually is.

Many modern weddings are crazed and chaotic examples of excessively bad taste: awkward attempts to please everybody's daft notions of "inclusiveness," becoming so convoluted that the bride and groom turn into afterthoughts. And that's when people get along; Rachel Getting Married constructs a gathering so combustible, so fraught with tension and worry, that side confrontations are as inevitable as Kym's next verbal blast.

A laid-back, post-meal clean-up session turns dangerous in the blink of an eye, as Rachel's husband-to-be, Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), unwittingly questions Paul's ability to "properly" load a dishwasher.

The subsequent timed challenge, superficially a harmless giggle, is anything but; the situation deteriorates even further with a heartbreaking discovery, as Kym — and, sadly, of course it had to be her — laughingly grabs for extra dishes and unwittingly snatches a hidden but carefully preserved family memento.

And then, as bad as things have been until now, the situation turns even worse with the arrival of Kym's mother, Abby (Debra Winger), and her new husband.

Mother and daughter clearly have unresolved issues, and Abby doesn't waste a minute before dropping into a familiar pattern. ("Don't smoke in here, darling.") But this merely foreshadows how nasty they'll eventually be with each other, and the reason for the final eruption hinges on a question that Kym has wanted to ask for years.

It's a shockingly apt question, too.

Throughout everything, though, the many friends, guests and extended family members — on both sides — do their best to carry on as if nothing has gone wrong. Paul is a music industry bigwig, and Sidney's a record producer, so of course the entire weekend is wall to wall music, of every type from garage rock to the full-blown troupe of Brazilian Carnaval drummers, singers and dancers that shows up after the actual wedding ceremony.

On the one hand, all these bands are cathartic; on the other, this incessant musical anarchy becomes so irritating that we're frankly relieved during one intense scene, as Kym interrupts herself long enough to demand that a porch band knock it off (a minor tantrum on Hathaway's part that was, if the press notes are to be believed, improvised but absolutely in character).

Most of the players in this massive cast are little more than witnesses, just as they would be at an actual wedding; they're required only to look and sound authentic as civilians, which they all do quite successfully. This leaves the heavy lifting to Hathaway, DeWitt, Irwin and Winger, each of whom carves out an unforgettable slice of high-strung angst.

Winger, largely absent from the big screen for more than a decade, returns in fine form; the first words from Abby's mouth, in Winger's deep, chain-smoker tone, and we're immediately reminded of all the great parts she played in the 1980s. She's just as strong here, her distanced family matriarch the candle toward which Kym's crippled moth can't help being drawn.

Watch the brittle smile on Winger's face: Never has an expression looked more rehearsed, more pregnant with meaning ... and less persuasive.

DeWitt has perhaps the toughest role, as the "normal" daughter: forever the injured party, always overlooked in the wake of her damaged sister's more flamboyant and demanding behavior. And although Rachel clearly has yielded the floor on countless previous occasions, she wants this weekend to be hers, dammit, and she's obviously prepared to fight for it.

But it's an unfair battle, and Rachel knows it. Kym's obnoxious behavior notwithstanding, she crumbles like a cupcake at any actual threat to her desire to be the center of attention; indeed, we spend the entire film waiting for her to angrily toss aside her 12-step mantra and head for the prescription meds or the nearest bottle of vodka.

No surprise, then, that in a film laden with scattershot verbal abuse, the most powerful scenes are the quietest: Kym pausing at the top of the stairs, when she first arrives home, as she looks wordlessly into one bedroom; Rachel finally relenting, becoming the mother that Abby no longer can be, and caring for Kym, naked both physically and emotionally, and at her lowest ebb. The latter scene, in particular, is poignant beyond words.

If you can survive Rachel Getting Married, you'll certainly be equipped for anything a real-world wedding might throw at you ... but be advised: Its acting merits aside, this isn't a film to approach frivolously.

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