November 17, 2008

This Is Not a Chick Flick

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When telling my friends that I was going to go see Rachel Getting Married over the weekend, the best way I could describe the gist of the film to them was that it starred Anne Hathaway, and that the plot centered on a wedding. If that elucidation doesn’t jump off the page and scream “chick flick!” to you, then I’m not sure what will. And although my feeble attempt at describing this film was factually accurate — Anne Hathaway is in nearly every scene, there are a lot of wedding-related scenes — this film is the farthest thing from another big budget, sugar-coated wedding movie in the vein of 27 Dresses. On the contrary, Rachel Getting Married is an understated film of familial turmoil and thematic dichotomy. With a looseness that is missing from the vast majority of films today, Rachel Getting Married tells a splendidly honest, emotionally charged story of family that is both joyously celebratory and tenderly melancholic at the same time.
You know right from the onset that this is not another syrupy wedding movie, as we meet Kym (Hathaway), a recovering drug addict who — after having gone through the revolving door of rehab clinics for over a decade — is now several months into a treatment plan that seems to be working. Given a day pass to attend her sister Rachel’s wedding, she travels to her family’s big old country house in Connecticut, a house filled with memories, family, future in-laws and the friends of bride and groom.
Throughout her visit, the Buckman home is abuzz with palpable energy and wedding preparations. The two families of the couple are just as much in love with one another as the bride and groom themselves, as nearly every experience they share — from the rehearsal dinner to the reception — is characterized by an infectious level of delight. One particularly memorable scene involves an impromptu dishwasher-loading contest that finds the deliriously upbeat father of Rachel and Kym (Bill Irwin) giddily battling future son-in-law Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe) for dishwashing-speed supremacy.
This exuberance among the cast of characters is all the more striking when compared to Kym’s anxious existence. Kym brings with her a long history of personal crisis and family conflict. Like most junkies, Kym is a master of manipulation and narcissism. She offers an awkward, self-absorbed AA-style confession when called to give a wedding toast on the eve of her sister’s nuptials, and even insists that she, and not her sister’s best friend, be the maid of honor. Long-simmering tensions in the family dynamic emerge from this point, as Kym’s struggles with addiction and blame for the death of her little brother permeates almost every familial interaction. From her relationship with her divorced parents to that with her sister, Kym carries with her an unconscionable burden in life that is the main source of conflict in this film.
This conflict is effectively interlaced into every seen by director Jonathan Demme and first-time writer Jenny Lumet. Known for his work on The Silence of the Lambs, Demme turns material that may have veered into soap-opera territory into a piece of truly engrossing, down-to-earth drama. The camera work here is inimitable, as Demme employs shots that make you feel as if you are one of the wedding’s attendees. The script by Jenny Lumet is equally enthralling, as she vitally fuses impulsive countercultural sensibility with dysfunctional family melodrama, all the while incorporating a wealth of stinging laughs and exhausting tears.
What really sells this film, however, are the performances. First of all, get ready for Anne Hathaway, as her intense performance as Kym drops all of the pretty conventions that characterized her performances in The Princess Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada. Though Hathaway’s character is flawed, her performance is flawless, and is sure to generate an Oscar nomination. It is a true testament to her that she was able to make Kym — who makes no attempts to ingratiate — so empathizing. Rosemarie DeWitt’s portrayal of Rachel is similarly superb, as you really feel a lifetime of jumbled sisterly feelings in every impassioned moment between them. Their bathroom exchange — only an hour before the wedding ceremony was to take place — was particularly emotional. Another standout performance was turned in by Debra Winger, whose rage-repressed portrayal of Kym’s birth mother is a thing of battered beauty.
All of this adds up to a film that left me utterly captivated. As the ending credits began to roll, I found myself glued to my chair, neither able to get up nor even process that I was still sitting in the tiny Cinemapolis movie theater. This film absorbed me into the wedding experience, as I felt like more of an eye-witness than a reviewer. Only special movies can have you slip out of your mind and into theirs — and this film surely is one of them.