Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.
Movies like Rachel Getting Married are almost impossible to do well. Too many family dramas have a need for closure, or feature relatives so bizarre they can only be found in movies. Director Jonathon Demme and his screenwriter sidestep these land mines. Here’s a family that’s tender, heartbreaking, joyous, and above all authentic. Everyone is out of the ordinary, but no one is implausible.
Like many family celebrations, the story is deceptively simple. In the house where she grew up, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) is marrying Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe, TV on the Radio’s singer). The family is worried about Rachel’s sister Kym (Anne Hathaway), who is taking a break from rehab for the special event. Kym can be crass, and though she is well on her way to recovery, the family does not know how to treat her. Everyone remembers a tragic event that ruptured the family dynamics. Both Rachel’s parents remarried, but the emotional wounds haven’t entirely healed. Once she arrives, Kym immediately makes herself the center of attention, which (justifiably) infuriates Rachel. Her father (Bill Irwin) and his second wife (Anna Deavre Smith) try and cool the situation, but tension arises amid the celebration. Awkward encounters become outright hostile.
Jonathan Demme, one the most humane directors, has the right approach for this kind of material. His hand-held camera plunges right into the middle of things, making you feel like you’re at the party. There is no soundtrack, but there is always music – either from guests practicing or performing. Sidney and Rachel are clearly in love. When everyone celebrates with them, I couldn’t help but get wrapped in everyone’s exuberance. But during scenes of ugly truths, the camera is soberingly still, allowing the audience to listen to hurtful words. The screenplay is Jenny Lumet‘s first, but it doesn’t show. Perhaps she got the creative chops from her father. Every word is closely observed, and within minutes you understand who these people are. There are abrupt shifts in tone, but they are not dizzying. During one scene, Sidney and Paul determine who is better at loading dishes, and in an instant, spontaneous glee gives way to mournful regret.
Such a movie wouldn’t work without stellar acting. They’re all great – even Abdeimpe, who could quit his day job. Anne Hathaway, often thought of as another pretty face, pulls it off. At first, she’s just a drama queen who throws discomfort in the face of her happy family. But as you listen to her at a 12 step meeting, you see the complex emotion behind the facade. She’s completely convincing, and there are several times where I wanted to hug her. Her huge eyes, which can be strangely awkward, are so expressive here. Kym’s talk with her mother (Debra Winger) feels like a punch in the gut. Winger (whatever happened to her?), closed off and angry, is brutal when speaking honestly. As Rachel, Rosemarie DeWitt has a trickier job. She wants to be happy, but sibling rivalry gets in the way. Kym gets positive attention for her negative behavior, and Rachel resents it. DeWitt goes through a wide range of emotion convincingly, but what lingers in my memory is her face as she looks at Sidney. There is so much tenderness and adoration that, yes, I got a little misty.
Rachel Getting Married is a bit like attending a wedding. Everything feels chaotic. There are moments of awkwardness and perhaps even sadness. Your family gets your goad not because you don’t know what they’re going to do, but because you know exactly what they’re going to do. But at the end of the day, you forget the bad and remember the unbridled joy. Maybe you don’t want it to end.
Here are realistic family dramas worth knowing about:
After the Wedding. Danish director Susanne Bier is a one-trick pony. She makes astutely observed melodramas about regular people who console each another in unexpected ways. Of all the Bier movies I’ve seen, After the Wedding is her best. It tells the story of Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen), a Dane who manages a floundering Indian orphanage. Strapped for cash, he goes to meet Jorgen, a wealthy businessman who offers to bankroll the orphanage. Jorgen invites Jacob to his daughter’s wedding, where Jacob is surprised to discover his former lover is Jorgen’s wife. Melodrama ensues. I first noticed Mads Mikkelsen as Casino Royale’s villain – here he does a complete 180 playing an introspective, decent man. The plot developments could easily fit into a soap opera, but with careful direction, the story feels more authentic. Faces are often the subject of Bier’s camera, forcing the actors to silently demonstrate what they’re thinking. With an engaging story and a heartfelt ending, I’d recommend After the Wedding if you’re in a particularly meditative mood. Just don’t bother with Bier’s other movies. It’s all the same song, different verse.
A Woman Under the Influence. Gena Rowlands earned an Academy Award nomination as Mabel, a wife and mother driven to madness. Mabel’s husband Nick (Peter Falk) is also batshit crazy, but with his job and patriarchal status, others excuse his reckless behavior. You get the impression that if Mabel had similar outlets, she could handle the expectations everyone has of her. Watching these two actors interact is a little frightening. They scream, abruptly change moods, endanger their kids, and alienate their relatives. With understated confidence, the movie was directed by John Cassavetes, Rowlands’ husband. It’s truly a family affair: Nick and Mabel’s mothers are portrayed by Cassevetes and Rowlands real-life mothers, respectively. Given such an approach, the material is all the more arresting because of how autobiographical it seems. Rowlands’ performance is the movie’s centerpiece – much like Mabel’s predicament, the actress has no place to hide. Little happens in the way of plot. And the movie is two and half hours long. It has a resolution, yes, but all the plot developments are in the minds of the two leads. Yet everything is handled with such skill that you will (probably) be ensnared by the story.
Margot at the Wedding. Directed by Noah “Kicking and Screaming” Baumbach, this is easily among the most uncomfortable family movies I’ve seen. Margot (Nicole Kidman) travels to her family home to meet her sister Pauline’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) new fiancé, Malcolm (Jack Black). Both Pauline and Margot have children. Soon the bickering begins – Malcolm disgusts Margot, and Pauline always tries to one-up her sister. These characters are bright, self-centered, and cruel. A particularly telling moment is when Margot and Pauline laugh about their other sister who was, “Raped by the horse trainer.” As I was watching, I found myself laughing not because the movie was particularly funny, but as a way of releasing the tension. Baumbach (who, incidentally, is married to Leigh) seems intent on nakedly showing how families terrorize one another. First with The Squid and the Whale and now this, he’s developing a unique voice – albeit one that’s hard to stomach. I made the inspired choice of seeing this right before my family’s Thanksgiving dinner – it made my crazy relatives seem functional by comparison.
That’s it for this week’s “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when I terrorize Italians.