March 10, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK: Rachel Getting Married

Rachel Getting Married
Rachel Getting Married
Directed by Jonathan Demme
2008, 113 minutes, USA
Sony Pictures Classics

I would never expect everyone to embrace a film I feel passionately about, so while I happen to think Rachel Getting Married—a raw-nerved, humanist dramedy about a dysfunctional Connecticut clan who can't be as magnanimous as they think they are because they haven't dealt with a familial tragedy—was the best American film released theatrically last year, I'm not rattled that some found it shrill, or slight, or messy. (Though I think those dismissive words address the characters' behavior, not the film itself.) Beyond its awards-season snubs (including director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Jenny Lumet), there shouldn't be fear of neglect for a film that clearly had its champions, and I'm even amused that it's powerful enough to rile its haters into wasting their time on a Facebook anti-fansite.

Rachel Getting Married Now, this may speak more to those who have already seen the film, but I won't spoil anything here. What deeply bothers me about some of the scathing snark I've heard from viewers concerns the liberalness of the characters, right down to the blissful multi-cultural wedding festivities that make up the buzzing bulk of the film's back half. "We don't doubt for a second that we're watching a bunch of virtuous, good-hearted people who will manage to work out all of their problems, live happily ever after, and vote for Obama," decried Scott Foundas after seeing the film in Toronto, and Anthony Lane takes the same unfairly detached approach, which speaks volumes more about either of their personal biases and outlooks than it does the film itself:

"The wedding party is the ultimate guide to Demme's benign vision: the groom is black, the bride is white, she and her bridesmaids are dressed in saris, nobody so much as mentions race, and the officiating priest is played by Demme’s cousin, Father Robert Castle, about whom he made a fine film, Cousin Bobby, in 1992. I don’t know if there were any Republican voters involved in this movie, but, if so, it must have been a lonely time. Just imagine if the rest of the crew found out: they would pin you down and sing to you until you changed your mind."

Jonathan DemmeWithin the context of this family—in which Bill Irwin plays a musician who knew and worked with all these cats from way back when, including yes, the husband-to-be's father—why can't they live with color-blindness, instead of making reference to the "black" groom and the "white" bride? These characters were once children who played together. I'll even step in with a personal take, as someone with an African-American stepmother and step-siblings, and say that it's quite possible that maybe it isn't a big deal THAT NEEDS TO BE CONSTANTLY ADDRESSED. If the diversity says anything about these characters, it's that their liberalism isn't false, but a mask they fall back on to maintain their passive-aggressiveness towards what they don't want to confront. The family believes their boho sensibilities make them flawlessly open-minded, when in truth, the elephant in the room (said familial tragedy) still rears its trunk; their shared domestic flaw is that they push all of their anger, bitterness, blame, guilt and sorrows onto Anne Hathaway's drug-rehabbed scapegoat—which makes sense, as she is the perpetual fuck-up who can't get out of her own way. Why is the movie being judged for its multi-culti sanguinity when it's the characters' defined backgrounds (jazz/world musicians!) that make "Jews in saris" an honest, naturalistic sight? The ever-sharp Michael Sicinski, also sensing how divisively this film has been received, says it far better than me:

"Some critics have mocked the film's wedding scenes as hipster fantasies or manqué Obama rallies. But this is simply insulting. Is it really so obscene to want to harness the power of the cinema for an extended, even 'indulgent,' representation of people coming together, finding unity despite pain, battling their way through to rapprochement? There are passages in Rachel Getting Married that open themselves up to cynicism and, to my eyes, flip it the bird."

Rachel Getting Married does not have a happy ending, its pains are never alleviated, and the family unit may never heal; but they get by, as do most screwed-up families who love even their blackest of sheep. If audiences are too jaded to recognize the genuine tenderness hiding under the surface hysteria (especially since some of these same people defended The Squid and the Whale from the detractors who called it "smug" when they really meant the characters were), then they deserve my middle finger, too.

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Posted by ahillis at March 10, 2009 2:45 PM


I was anticipating which of the big five DVDs (Milk, Synecdoche, New York, Happy-Go-Lucky and Let the Right One In being the others) you'd choose as the DVD of the week, and I'm pleased that you chose this one (technically my second favorite American film from last year, after Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Want to start an anti-anti-fansite on Facebook?

Posted by: Joe Bowman at March 10, 2009 3:53 PM


First - a minor quibble: If the father of the bride was so close with the groom's family, isn't it therefore fair to assume that the children should know each other, or at least have met? When troubled sister is introduced to the groom, it's clearly for the first time.

While you're right that the race issue need not be addressed all the time, to not mention it AT ALL is just, if not more, fraudulent. In fact, by not mentioning it as often and as he (Demme) doesn't, it's as if he actually screaming for recognition -- "Look how color-blind I am!"

As for Sicinski's quote - I admire the sentiment, but it smacks of Armondism -- the need for cinema to be progressive, etc. Flipping the bird to cynicism is one thing, but to be sanctimonious about it.....

Finally, if the family's liberalism is but a mask, and therefore fraudulent, shouldn't these characters be painted as such, or at the very least exposed as pathetic? Yet that's not at all how Demme presents them. Maybe what this film needs IS a touch of cynicism. Come back to the Five and Dime, Robert Altman.

Posted by: Filmbrain at March 10, 2009 6:08 PM

I'm actually 45:48 into this right now, and I just want to say: This is one of the most excruciating cinema-watching experiences of my entire life. It's beyond pretentious. Beyond a complete catastrophe. It''s... fuck, if I could name it, it wouldn't be so atrocious.

One day, in Web 3.0, somebody will develop a plug-in that allows the transmission of fart odor over the internet. And I will use said plug-in every time this movie is ever mentioned.

Posted by: Mr. Milich at March 10, 2009 8:42 PM

I couldn't get through 15 minutes of this film because of the swerve-cam cinematography. Had to leave the theater, physically ill. There is no reason for filming like this -- in fact, "cutting" has been show to be effective in clinical tests.

Posted by: Erik at March 10, 2009 8:55 PM

The film is a complete rip-off of Festen (The Celebration, 1998), of Dogme fame.

Posted by: PS at March 11, 2009 2:55 AM

The gathering of a family aside, what does this film have in common with Festen (The Celebration)?

Posted by: Craig Hubert at March 11, 2009 9:42 AM

It isn't that the stance is to either expose liberalism or hide behind its tenants to imagine a more Utopian existence but rather a complete acceptance of cliche that I take offense to in this film. It's lack of insight into its characters can, at times, be striking. By imposing a view of them so clearly and allowing the characters to not enhance this view, challenge it, or otherwise use it as a crux for dramatic tension could be called its ultimate failing. The only character it seems to allow to exist freely is the fiancee, played admirably by the lead singer of TV on the Radio. Not saying he should stick to his day job, quite the opposite, his character seemed the only one the film could find to allow to simply exist on the screen, to breathe and move and live simply, to keep his opinions and motivations and whatever else to himself, rather than imposing them upon us in uncomfortable fashion as the film seems to be fine doing.

It is this lack of subtlety, while stylistically seeming to want an off the cuff in the moment aesthetic to purvey, that shows the film to be a jumbled mess of well-intentioned ideals, perhaps, but also its lack of understanding.

Lets assume that the film is well aware of its characters as representations of a repressed, drugged-up and out, liberal minded family of the modern age. What insights does it have for us? The disaffected druggie daughter? The sister envious of the attention the druggie got all those years? A past family tradgedy? (Don't worry if you miss it, they will continually beat home said tragedy, perhaps not so much beat as introduce and allow to operate at a steady pace until its anti-culmination).

This film is riddled with these cliches. By the time the wedding party actually occurs I was thankful to at least be looking at something different and colorful as what I was forced to swallow previously was the underwhelming dreck of the family melodrama, played out with the laziest of devices, the handheld camera.

The film offered no insight into its characters other than the obvious surface tensions and thankfully, as is the custom nowadays, ends on an ambiguous note of, "Oh wasn't that nice, you got to mingle with these uninteresting character types and now we're not going to try and muddy the experience with anything visceral but the much expected "And the band plays on" motif."

If you're making a film about family ties make it at least feel alive, specific, and engaged.

Manny Farber would not approve.

Posted by: John at March 11, 2009 9:46 AM

What's with all the loathing? I, er, thought it was pretty good. Guess Aaron and I need to see this one again to see how terrible it is. It's disturbing at times, yes, it's even desolate, but it resonated. It's honest, funny, horrifying -- and I won't soon forget it. There are a lot of articulate comments above about why it's terrible, yet none of them wash with me. Hope people will at least see it and judge for themselves. Maybe I'm just biased toward Jonathan Demme movies, but I'd rather see it several more times than be subjected to Bride Wars or any other terrible American wedding movie. Cheers.

Posted by: Craig P at March 11, 2009 12:21 PM

Benjamin Button was more realistic than this movie.

Posted by: Mr. Milich at March 11, 2009 2:21 PM

Well, I showed the film to ca. 10 friends and was the only one in the room who liked it. Everybody else was either bored, ridiculed the film or became outright hostile to the family on the screen, claiming they were not bearable.
I guess we Rachel-Lovers are a very small minority.

Posted by: thfu at March 11, 2009 3:51 PM

The family that dines together whines together. Pretentious drivel. Boring beyond words. Cliche upon cliche. I had banished this nightmarish experience to the back of my mind until I read your post and then I got physically ill for a moment.

Posted by: Paul at March 11, 2009 5:57 PM

I completely agree that a lot of the criticisms RGM has received aren't even about the story or film-making but critics' own biases. Which may be of marginal interest to readers but is really cheating the people who work hard to make films.

Posted by: Erin D. at March 11, 2009 10:01 PM

I don't believe it is the bias a critic is at the service of but rather to give an estimation of the films qualities and assess them as he or she chooses. The role of the critic isn't to lay off on a well-meaning though ultimately underwhelming film experience by 'not being too mean'. We are all inclined to agree with a review that backs our estimate of the film and just as quickly will dismiss a bad review as being short-sighted. I think a person is able to bring an appreciation of the film to the table while assessing its faults. This isn't giving lip service to all camps, the haters and hated, but to open up the discussion to what we are ultimately left with: what is on screen. We can only judge a film on the merits of what is presented to us. For instance, I saw a film that, from the choice of handheld and seemingly off-the cuff conversational style of the acting, wanted to present a slice of life, something no doubt that contributed to the very specific choices of location, interaction, background of the characters, the multi-culturalism of the party, the jazz/be-bop history, etc. The goal for me fell short since I could feel this prerogative in the film to strain to be very specific so it might appeal on a broader basis. The problem came when it gave me no insight into the characters, it went through the trouble to create these characters and gave them no room to move outside of these cliches, it's something I've seen before, done to better or worse degree, but ultimately it could not get past these characters as what they were and nothing more, nothing more painful then the 'lets set this mess on the table' scene with all the tears and no conflict, at least no furthering or deeper understanding of the conflict caused by the death of the younger brother, it is presented as it happened, the characters were affected as they are telling you they are effected, clean and easy and wearing a style that screams idiosyncrasy but in the end it was an affect, it didn't get down to it, a simple melodrama. While there is nothing inherently wrong with melodrama and can be used to stunning effect, as can anything that's ever existed in the history of cinema, it felt dishonest, the style clashing with what it was presenting me and what it had to offer. Affectation.

Posted by: John at March 12, 2009 8:54 AM

Surely I'm not the only one who liked the film in part because its characters and milieu were utopian to an obnoxiously, alienating degree?

Posted by: Brian at March 12, 2009 9:34 AM

A Hallmark Movie of the Week as directed by Joe Swanberg after guzzling a pint of liquid ecstasy.

Posted by: Mr. Milich at March 12, 2009 10:05 AM

What's the name of that old Phil Ochs song? "Hate Me, I'm A Liberal"? No, that can't be right...

Posted by: Glenn Kenny at March 12, 2009 10:23 AM

Don't you have some films to be making, Mr. Milich? ;-)

Posted by: Craig P at March 12, 2009 11:18 AM

Pre-production allows for frivolity.

Posted by: Mr. Milich at March 12, 2009 11:41 AM
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