Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Oct 05, 2008 10:18 am 
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Wedding drama drama drama, and it's all good

Rachel Getting Married is extremely accomplished filmmaking. The story it tells is a triumph of unified mainstream feel-good family dysfunctionality--and an elaborate drama whose background and foreground intensities never let up. The world depicted is a multi-cultural one. The bride and groom are of mixed race and the stepmother Carol (Anna Deavere Smith), wife of the sisters' eager-to-please dad Paul (Bill Irwin) is also black. Though with evident good will, the ethnic variety seems exaggerated for liberal-humanistic effect. It's a faux-Indian Jewish-Black wedding (with, as usual, one token male Asian-American on hand); but it takes place in the unmistakably WASP setting of Stamford, Connecticut, and the WASP element of white privilege trumps all the rest. Most of the action occurs in the big clapboard house in Stamford owned by the rich white family or on its ample grounds. The groom, Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe) is black, but let's face it, he's given a very secondary role to the drama-queen ladies. "Race doesn't matter" is a white message. To non-whites in America, it always does matter.

The big gathering is described with a jittery dogma-esque camera à la Thomas Vinterberg's vindictive Celebration, treading ground covered by Robert Altman and various others. Going home for the holidays is difficult for almost any family members. When there are "issues"--and when aren't there?--it's a test of those returning. Jodie Foster's 1995 Thanksgiving film was a good example and Robert Downey Jr. helped dramatize the craziness of such events. The difference here is that Demme manages major confrontations within a film of Altman-esque complexity and his resolutions aren't ironic.

The family of the bride, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), is one whose dysfunction is focused primarily on problems surrounding the drug addiction of Rachel's beautiful but troubled sister, Kym (Anne Hathaway), a recovering drug addict (nine months clean in rehab) who's caused terrible tragedy in the past and whose temporary release from her program for the wedding and return to it afterward bookend the drama. This rehab is so posh it has an employee personally assigned to Kym to pick her up after it's all over.

In a way Kym is an early-release deus ex machina to stir up the family's conflicts. The movie spends more than enough time on 12-step recovery. Kym is seen going to two meetings during her furlough. Somewhat too conveniently, the groom's best friend Kieran (Mather Zickel) turns out to be there at the first meeting, in recovery himself. In a "13th step" violation of recovery rules, they immediately have sex.

To a jaundiced eye, the whole elaborate get-together is a device to show a family self-destructing and then healing again. But that's okay because Demme's heart is in the right place and this time he has made up with specificity and grittiness for the utter conventionality of the predominantly straight look at gay tragedy set forth in the director's prize-winning Philadelphia. To back up the energetic depiction of family dynamics, the performances, some of them by non-actors, are uniformly strong. This is wedding drama drama drama, but it’s all good.

The major fracas is the confrontation between Rachel and Kym after Kym's speech at the pre-nup dinner full of 12-Step recovery "amends" to the people present, highlighting her problem and her current reformation. Rachel accuses Kym of hijacking the whole event, and for that matter of monopolizing family attention throughout their lives. Actually Kym's speech is pivotal because it links recovery and the marriage. The sisters' big verbal fight afterward seems real and justified. Ultimately what emerges is that because of the family history, Rachel isn't capable of being fully supportive of Kym's recovery and doesn't even understand it.

One can argue that the whole recovery theme steals the movie. But conventional as the messages are, they're still new to the screen in such plain form and they give the wedding theme a twist that's welcome.

Another recovery element is the way Rachel inadvertently (somewhat artificially) learns that Kym's rehab narrative of the family has been exaggerated. Never mind what it was; the point is it's not at all how Rachel sees their experience. In fact later Kym admits in front of the family that it was distorted. This is realistic, the sense that an addict may paint her experience in lurid colors, and that other family members may be alienated by that.

To hear what writers have said about the movie you'd think we ought to be waiting throughout for the excellent, rarely seen Debra Winger's big scene. That's wrong. There's no big scene, and everybody else is just as good if not better. Debra Winger doesn't have a decisive moment; it's not written that way. The really big moments come from other sources, manly the sisters.

Demme loves World Music and provides a lot of sound throughout. It seems a bit far-fetched really, that there are musicians on hand practicing for the wedding day 24 hours beforehand, that the sounds never stop. They become as annoying as the jittery camera and at one point the actors even command them to stop. But after the wedding ceremony the sounds are rich and fun--and a relief of tension--and it's great to see the wonderful Sister Carol East, whose singing lit up Married to the Mob and Something Wild (Demme's heyday), doing a great song at a climactic point.

If this is the show a white liberal puts on, gee, it's not bad at all. Rachel Getting Married deserves to be gone over more critically and more specifically than it has been by film critics so far, but it's likely that the movie will survive hard looks. If it has passed muster already with the crusty African-American critic Armond white, it's rock solid. White wrote that Rachel Getting Married avoids "the hip nihilism of repugnant family dramas like Margot at the Wedding," and he calls this "a family-chaos film that’s also lively and fertile." " Rachel Getting Married’s social scale and emotional fullness would do Renoir and Altman proud," White concludes, but "still it’s Demme’s genuine vision." It's all true. This is conflict film that's able to confront hard family issues and still emerge positive, loving, and joyous.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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