Rachel Getting Married (2008)

Reality is tantamount to the assembly of pretty much any film.  There are obvious exceptions in the realm of science fiction or fantasy, but for the most part, stories are set in our world and live by our rules.  This can be frustrating on a small level, when John McClane yet again avoids dying in some absurd way, or when two people fall madly in love with each other in the span of five minutes.  But working in the confines of reality can go much deeper than this.  With the goal of making something real, a director can place as many restrictions on his story as he chooses.  This is the triumph of Jonathan Demme with Rachel Getting Married. Reality is the impetus and the guiding hand in this story about the struggle for empathy and the obligation of relationships.

Kim (Anne Hathaway) is a recovering drug-addict with a dark history and a blank future.  Returning to her father’s house on the eve of her sister’s wedding, Kim’s venture back into the real world is startlingly abrupt.  Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), the bride-to-be is rightly focused on her big day, and Kim feels neglected.  On the other hand, their father Paul (Bill Irwin) is showing Kim exactly the kind of attention you would show a newly recovered drug-addict and potential bulimic, keeping an eye on her when he can and offering food at every opportunity.  There’s an endless stream of people coming in and out, playing music, laughing, and it all reminds Kim of her station.  The screw-up.  The deadbeat.  As the wedding goes forward, Kim plays the role of an emotional erratic, going round and round with joy and sorrow.  Though she’s no longer using, Kim’s journey remains as reckless as it ever has been, and her victims stay the same.  Her mother and father, her sister, herself.

Because commitment to reality is the blueprint of this film, performances are hugely important and there’s few that disappoint.  Rosemarie DeWitt as Rachel is a beautiful counter to Kim.  Their sisterhood functions in a way that only years of love and frustration could breed.  Kim’s love for her sister is matched only by her need to be near her and feel protected by her, and Anne Hathaway conveys this with both strength and subtlety.  Bill Irwin as Kim’s father is terribly sweet.  An endearing man who wants nothing more than happiness for his family, and struggles with them when it remains unattained.  His love is at the forefront of every interaction, and when he smiles, so do you.  And Anne Hathaway deserved her Oscar nomination.  Kim is a little kid who thinks that simply growing older brings insight, and her inability to grow out of self-involvement seems the perpetual blockade this family will never elude.  Hathaway has an uncanny ability to be both charming and awful, and the change comes quickly, which is not unreasonable; Kim is in the midst of perhaps the best and worst day she’ll ever have.

Where devotion to reality becomes problematic is in the characterization of the two families and their friends.  To put it simply, these are not people I would want to be around for an extended period of time.  Their idea of fun doesn’t really appeal to me.  In a severely overextended scene at the rehearsal dinner, we see speech, after speech, after speech, after speech…after speech.  These people are all sweet, and lovingly sincere, but I don’t need to see this many speeches given by characters who won’t have another line in the film, and if the purpose of this scene is to lead up to Kim’s crash and burn speech, then why doesn’t it stop when she does?  I’m being nit-picky here, but it’s to get at a larger problem: Demme doesn’t seem to know when to pull the reigns on his characters.  There’s too much preciousness here, and too much assumption that the audience will love these people as much as the director does.  They’re interesting, but they certainly aren’t incapable of being annoying.

I could go on and on about all the elements that work to express the authenticity of the film.  There’s really no shortage.  But what’s more important is what that reality serves, what it accomplishes.  It pulls you further into the dynamic of Kim and Rachel, making the highs higher and the lows lower.  It brings out a character like Bill, whose idealism is so charming you want him to be happy like you want your own father to be happy.  This all stems from a basic idea: reality generates relevance.  It’s a smart way of getting your audience to care, and if you have the chops of Jonathan Demme, it can be pretty damn effective.

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