Finally saw RACHEL GETTING MARRIED, which is like a Demme film reunion party that everyone’s invited to, but after you leave, you never see any of them again. And there’s something about that which makes your own life seem, perhaps, empty by comparison. Unless, of course, you’re lucky enough to have a non-dysfunctional artistic, musical, happy joyous and free, affluent family.
One of Demme’s strengths has been the concert film and his unique ways of mixing live musical performances into his dramatic films (such as Sister Carol rapping over the end credits to Something Wild). For Rachel, Demme takes all the musicians he can grab and interweaves liberally with the tropes of not less than three indie film genres: the handheld camera Altmanesque overlapping dialogue “happening” fillm (The Anniversary Party and Margot at the Wedding being two other recent ceremony-centric examples); the multi-culti musical call for brotherhood film ((Michel Gondry’s Block Party and Be Kind Rewind being recent examples); and the shaky handicam “recovery” film (Clean and Down to the Bone). Most of us can find something to love and relate to in this odd mix. But the question is, will it still love us, tomorrow?
The film begins its story through the eyes of Anne Hathaway’s rehab veteran as she returns home to attend her sister’s wedding and right there we’re off to a cock-eyed start. The attempt to weld “indie recovery drama” to the Jonathan Demme cook-out music fest semi-documentary is valiant, but doomed to leave a lot of us alienated and disillusioned. I know lots of critics loooove this film. I myself loved it, while I watched it. Afterwards, I felt alienation slowly replace the warm fuzzy, the way a big fun wedding or dance party might leave you depressed–“blue Tuesday”ing it–all the next week. Somewhere in the world there’s rich jet set club kids for whom the party never stops. The rest of us have to get back on the bus and go to work. Why give us a taste just to take it all away? Don’t we have the right to our cynicism?
As someone in recovery, it’s both enlightening and insulting to see how Demme contrasts the “hungry ghost” mentality with the selfless love and open-heartedness of the multi-racial musical everybody else, the stock regulars of past Demme efforts are here: Cousin Bobby conducts the ceremony, Robyn Hitchcock performs at the reception party, Neil Young is even name-checked, right after God. The only person who seems “real” at this wedding–as in anxious to leave–is Debra Winger as the divorced mom. The most ridiculously contrived scene comes when Winger and husband are trying to cut out and Rachel and Kym beg her to stay. Jesus Christ! It’s late, the dinner and cake cutting is all over and done with. The only people still dancing are drunk. Let the lady go home for Christ’s sake. The camera follows their car as it blurs into the out of focus rain. Somewhere you can feel Garrison Keillor sadly shaking his gentle head; Michael Moore still waving pictures of little dead girls at the grave of Charlton Heston.
There’s some enabling/co-dependent undercurrents in the dialogue that could have been explored, but Demme glides right over them. Dad is a living saint, played by SESAME STREET regular Bill Irwin, a Mr. Rogers with a little better dress sense, A Ned Flanders with soul. Everyone who sees the film wants him for their dad, but we can see why Debra Winger’s character left him, and part of us secretly wants to go with her. Noah Baumbach nailed this character far less sympathetically in the similar but more realistically acidic Margot at the Wedding in the form of John Turturo as the ex-husband. Demme doesn’t seem to have enough dysfunction in his life to know where to dig for it, he can’t see the sinner in the heart of the saint and vice versa. The closest he came to getting it right was in the bond between Clarice and Hannibal.
Screenwriter Jenny Lumet comes from a musical and artistic family tree that includes grandma Lena Horne and dad Sidney Lumet; the perceptive, minutely fleshed out party chaos has the smack of a child’s eye view, and she deserves a lot of credit for what works here. Yet how can one not feel jealous and a little bit tired after such a love song-packed and color-full union? I admit I was crying in several spots. I was washed up in its brotherly love tide. But now I feel bedraggled and run over. I have to go to a party like Rachel’s wedding this weekend, actually, and I’m already dreading the fun I will have.
Seeing Rachel in the Cineplex provided me with a meta-textual shock ending when I came across a poster for an upcoming Disney film, Bride Wars (2009) on my way back out to the lobby; this “return to mall culture” Hathaway move almost flipped me back into a jaundiced cynic right then and there. But I kept my communal love vibe alive through the night. Today though I’m all about the realization that I am who I am–the Debra Winger-Margot type “cold-hearted bitch”– despite my believing in and hoping in the future of universal brotherly love evinced by the Obama presidency and Rachel Getting Married. Once the smoke clears and the empty cups are swept away, I’m still a cold Nordic drunk, outside the main tent, like John Wayne at the end of The Searchers. It’s hard, damn hard, to keep your cynicism alive after walking out of the open-hearted Rachel Getting Married… but somehow we go on.
(Note: The preceding is based on a telephone conference with Kim Morgan of Sunset Gun, to whom some of the observations undoubtedly belong. Her Gun is my bible, amen.)