Monday, March 16, 2009

Rachel Getting Married: Everyone's Invited

Late in Rachel Getting Married (now out on DVD), Anne Hathaway’s Kym lashes out at a group of musicians playing in the next room. “Are they going to play all day long?” she cries—and some viewers surely share her sentiment. The whining and vaguely Middle Eastern tone of a violin backed by African drums, Russian balalaikas, and rock guitars plays constantly through Jonathan Demme’s film—and plays fast and loose with a host of ethnic musical traditions. It’s a multi-cultural feast of melody, and it doesn’t always sound very good at all.

But anyone who wishes Demme would silence the constant jamming is missing the point of his excellent film (and forgetting that his work with music started with his 1984 Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense). The incessant music that fills the Buchman house signals the family’s intense and dangerous self-indulgence. It’s easy for them to be open to everything and to look good doing it. What’s harder is for them to examine or even acknowledge the wrenching truths that hum through their lives like a low drone.

Rachel Getting Married anatomizes this dysfunctional and wounded family without offering them a too-easy forgiveness. And it succeeds in large part thanks to Jenny Lumet’s skillful and insightful screenplay. Lumet is a master here of revealing character through just a few lines of dialogue (dialogue which is occasionally hard to hear in Demme’s Robert-Altman-like naturalistic approach). In the film’s first scene, we learn that Kym’s father Paul played by Bill Irwin is half an hour late to pick her up from rehab so that she can attend her sister’s wedding. He introduces himself to Kym’s aide—a woman we learn he already knows from a previous visit. With two strokes, Lumet has told us almost all of what we need to know about Paul’s character and his relationship to both his daughters. It’s his combination of solicitude and neglect that will turn out to be a key emotional element of the film.

Lumet’s portrait of the Buchman family unfolds like a game of psychological whack-a-mole. Just when we think we’ve identified the One Great Manipulator among this well-to-do Connecticut brood, another character steps up to take his or her place. The easy first choice is, of course, Hathaway’s Kym, who brings self-indulgence to a peak of achievement only Kim Jong Il could rival. Her supposedly concerned questions about her sister are barbs against an invented eating disorder; her toast at the rehearsal dinner is a phony attempt to make amends; her insistence on being maid of honor has everything to do about her competition with Rachel’s lifelong friend Emma (another perfect study in passive-aggressive personality). It’s widely known by now that Hathaway shed her princessy persona for this role, but she has done far more than paint on too much eyeliner and wind thin scarves around her heavily tattoo-ed shoulders. Always on camera (even when edited out), given Demme’s hand-held filming strategy here, she gives a nuanced and utterly believable performance as a damaged soul.

We reach a point when we almost can’t bear to look at Hathaway’s petulant face or to hear her self-righteous complaining about the injustices done to her (the greatest of which was the handing over to Kate Winslet of the Best Actress Oscar). But the more we see of her father, the more we realize that the trouble with Kym has a source other than the tragic secret that the film reveals little by little. And the same is true for Paul’s ex-wife Abby, played in a miniature tour de force by Debra Winger. Each of these people is intent on sustaining the stories they want to believe about themselves and about each other. Even when to do so is to put someone’s life at risk.

Demme doesn’t leave us completely at sea. Perhaps the film’s twin loci of sanity are Anna Deaveare Smith’s Carol and Rosemarie DeWitt’s Rachel. By virtue of her outsider status, Carol is immune to the Buchman brand of mindless mindfulness. That Rachel turned out so well is a testament to her efforts to get out—to Hawaii, to a new marriage, to a new family.

Back to that mindfulness. The Buchmans are a Connecticut family in a wainscoted and book-lined home with musical instruments hanging on the wall and Persian rugs on the floor. So why do they wear saris to a wedding in which not a single South Asian appears as either a guest or a participant? Why the saag korma at the rehearsal dinner? Why, later, the samba band, and the reggae dj? Oooh, they would want us to say: look how open they are, these Buchmans. Look how mindful they are of the world’s traditions. Instead, we feel that, just as Bill will remember to shake a person’s hand but forget he’s ever met her, these people’s minds are so open that their brains fell out.

So does this mean that Kym is the film’s monster in the old tradition of the word? Like Frankenstein’s monster, does she de-monstrate for us the flaws in the family and reveal their culpability in making her an outsider? Probably not. Demme’s film is, after all, a more complicated enterprise. He manages to elicit our sympathy, in varying degrees, with all these people, monsters or not. Still, while the wedding looks like a lot of fun, I’m glad to leave the Buchmans behind—without ever getting a taste of that turmeric-flavored wedding cake.


  1. Love your revision! I'm glad you kept the "Kym Jong-Il" reference.

    The still of Anne H. as Kym is well-chosen--check out the world map on the wall behind her. Great shot, and totally resonates with all your points about the Buchmans' cultural magpie-ism as a way to dull their own pain.

  2. Well, I think you read more into that choice of image than I can take credit for, but I did think it went a small way to suggesting a context for Kym. More so than the more standard images of her looking squarely (and morosely) into the camera. Her mascara is a little tidier here than it is for much of the movie, for what it's worth.

  3. I wanted to wait until I saw the movie before I read this post. I saw it last night. You give a great summation of this family's relationship. I wanted to slap Kym after the first five minutes. By the end I wanted to slap the whole family, but to a lesser degree. Everyone is culpable to some degree. It's a film that invites multiple viewings, but, yeah, I'm not sure I can sit through that rehearsal dinner again along with that eternal reception.

  4. Yes, or "whack" them all, as the case may be. I think my sympathies in the end do lie with Kym, though. I had the same reaction you had, just cringing at her horrible behavior well into the movie--certainly into the rehearsal dinner (which rivals the reception scene for excessive length). Then I found other villains, I suppose, in her father and then, breathtakingly, in her mother. And maybe I was swayed by a constant awareness (in a good way) of what a strong acting performance Hathaway was creating. (She was so good at being a terrible, flawed person that I found her less terrible?!)