‘Rachel Getting Married’ is one of Jonathan Demme’s Best Films

Rachel Getting Married movie poster

One of the many things I have discovered about life is it is really easy to hate someone or be angry at them. As negative an emotion as it is, there is an unmistakable power from it which really makes you feel alive. At the same time, it is much harder to forgive that person for what they have done to you. You get so sick of someone getting the best of you to where you desperately don’t want to look like the fool. But eventually, it should become clear that the one person you really need to forgive most is yourself. This can be much harder than forgiving someone else, but it is necessary as it keeps you from sinking into the hideous swamp of bitterness which can eat you up. But can you forgive yourself when you have done something horrible and can’t you wipe away the cloud hanging over your existence because of what you have done? I would like to believe the answer is yes, but others may disagree.

Rachel Getting Married” is a movie about forgiveness, and the rough road people travel to get to it. It is also a movie about family and togetherness, and the joy of life. It almost moved me to tears the same way “Lars and the Real Girl” did as it deals with the saddest of things while surrounding itself in an atmosphere of love and much-needed togetherness. This is one of Jonathan Demme’s best movies as well as one of the very best of 2008. I really loved “Rachel Getting Married” and found myself wanting to hug all the characters in it. It is a movie of raw emotions, and I love seeing movies with this kind of power more often than not.

Anne Hathaway gives a phenomenal performance as Kym, the wild child of a Connecticut family who gets a vacation break from her current rehabilitation facility to go home for her sister Rachel’s wedding. It doesn’t take long to get an idea of how much of a “bad egg” she appears to be to everyone around her. As she goes into a convenience store to get a Pepsi, the female cashier behind the counter says, “Didn’t I see you on ‘Cops?’”

Kym is a full-blown drug addict and has been for several years, and while her family is happy to have her home, there are also raw emotions simmering just below the surface and waiting to come out into the open. We feel this tension from the very start, and it is illustrated in Hathaway’s face as we see her feeling like the wallflower at a party. While everyone is happy for the bride and groom, she is sullen and lost in a moment she cannot escape from. As the movie goes on, we come to see the reason for her self-destructive behavior and why she acts the way she does. I will not mention what it is here as it might take away from the emotional impact you will experience watching this movie.

This movie feels a lot different from others Demme has made in the past. He filmed the movie with high definition cameras to capture the movie on a more intimate level, and it feels like he really let the actors loose from start to finish. It is handheld camerawork going on here, so this will probably drive those who couldn’t stand all the shaky camerawork in “The Bourne Ultimatum” or “Cloverfield” crazy. While some people may experience motion sickness from this, I had no problem with it as the camerawork helped illustrate the emotionally fragile ground the characters are walking over, and how easily everything could come tumbling down.

What is so great about Demme’s direction is how he makes us feel like we really are attending the wedding along with these characters and sharing in the joys and sorrows of everyone involved. These characters feel so real, and it is so great to see no Hollywood artifice on display here. There have been so many big Hollywood movies dealing with families and marriage, and I find myself increasingly avoiding them. But the actions in “Rachel Getting Married” never felt staged for a second, and I loved that. Everyone in this movie feels like people we know from our own lives, and it connects us all the more strongly to what they go through.

“Rachel Getting Married” also, like all of Demme’s movies, has a very eclectic mix of music in it from the offbeat to the international. His movies don’t just have their own signature look, but their own significant sound. One character makes beautiful use of a Neil Young song as he sings it to another person. The audience I saw this with at Landmark Theaters in West Los Angeles were as silent as the characters onscreen during this moment, and I’ll never forget that.

I also loved how the soon to be married couple is an interracial couple, and no one ever brings this up at all. I guess none of the characters see it as an issue worth addressing. Hallelujah!

The script was by Jenny Lumet, and she gives her characters a vibrancy which elevates it from the couples we usually expect to see in movies like these. Her screenplay does tread familiar scenarios and storylines of the addict trying to go straight, but it finds its own voice and way of saying things to where everything feels fresh and new.

Demme always brings out the best in all the actors he has ever worked. There are many great performances to be had here, not just Hathaway’s. Rosemarie DeWitt plays Rachel, and she is a wonderful and real presence to be had in this movie. She goes from being so happy to seeing her sister Kym to being utterly exasperated and strung out that she is at home. It is clear that Rachel wants Kym to be well, but she constantly worries Kym will ruin the wedding in one way or another. Both Hathaway and DeWitt work really well off of each other as two sisters desperate to connect with one another despite the emotional damage between them. There’s a touching moment where Kym comes back from a rough night, and Rachel washes her clean in the shower as if she is washing her sins down the drain.

I also really liked Bill Irwin as Paul, Kym and Rachel’s dad, who is so happy to see his daughters under one roof, while at the same time harboring scars which will never fully heal. We also have Debra Winger, an actress we don’t see much of these days as the girls’ mother, Abby. She has great scenes with both daughters as she allows us to see beneath her seemingly calm exterior to the distrust she has had for Kym after all this time. The big scene between Hathaway and Wagner where the truth comes to a head is riveting and painfully raw as they each try to come to grips with the tragedy they both had a part in but are hesitant to take full responsibility for.

“Rachel Getting Married” is not just a triumph of acting, but also of writing and direction. All three elements come together to create a powerfully moving film about the flawed and fragile nature of humanity, and of the struggle for forgiveness. The movie has a very improvisatory feel to it and, despite the serious nature of the film, you cannot help but feel everyone had such a great time making it. You feel like you are with these families every step of the way, and you revel in their celebration of two families coming together as one. The reception near the end of the movie is one of ecstatic joy and happiness, even while some have wounds which take them out of the present.

But the person who carries this movie from beginning to end is Hathaway. Many see this as her escape from those “Princess Diaries” movies as she rids herself of the ever so clean image we have had of her. Truth be told, she has been doing this already with “Brokeback Mountain” and “Havoc,” but this should fully complete her transition to becoming an adult actress. All the Oscar talk she has been getting is justified. Kym is not an easily likable character, but Hathaway gives her a heart and soul and makes you care deeply about Kym all the way through. The moments where Hathaway does not say a word, her face does the acting and reveals a very uncomfortable soul trying to fit into a place which was once her home. She does brave and amazing work here, and she proves to be a dramatic force to be reckoned with.

“Rachel Getting Married” further shows how brilliant Demme is in getting to the wounded humanity of all the characters he observes. There is not one moment which feels faked in this movie, and it never really falls victim to any clichés that could easily tear it apart. This is another movie you don’t watch as much as experience, and I am always on the lookout for those. It also kept reminding me of the song “To Forgive” by The Smashing Pumpkins which kept playing in my head throughout:

“Holding back the fool again
Holding back the fool pretends
I forget to forget nothing is important
Holding back the fool again.”

Funny, I thought Billy Corgan was saying “forgive” instead of “forget.”

* * * * out of * * * *

Kristen Wiig and Sebastián Silva Discover a Cinematic Freedom in ‘Nasty Baby’

Nasty Baby UK poster

After winning various awards on the festival circuit including the Teddy Award for best LGBT-themed feature film at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival, “Nasty Baby” finally made its way to American audiences. The movie stars Sebastian Silva, who also wrote and directed it, as Freddy, an experimental artist based out of Brooklyn, New York who is desperate to have a baby with his boyfriend Mo (Tunde Adebimpe). Joining them on this quest for parenthood is their best friend Polly (Kristen Wiig) who plans to be the surrogate mother for the couple, and we watch as they deal with various complications and obstacles which keep them from starting a family. But when an especially annoying neighbor known as The Bishop (Reg E. Cathey) constantly harasses them, it leads to a terrifying situation which could destroy all their plans forever.

Kristen Wiig and Sebastian Silva were on hand recently for the “Nasty Baby” press conference which was held at the London Hotel in West Hollywood, California, and they were both very descriptive about what went into the making of this movie. We all know Wiig of course from her endlessly hilarious years on “Saturday Night Live” and for acting in and co-writing the wonderful comedy “Bridesmaids.” Silva’s previous directorial efforts include “The Maid,” “Crystal Fairy & the Magic Cactus” and “Magic Magic.”

One thing that struck me in particular was how freed up the actors appeared to be onscreen as the movie was shot mostly with a hand held camera. I couldn’t help but think that the actors had an easier time moving around and performing scenes this way than they would have on any other film set as they didn’t have to worry about being in the right position at the right time. They were all just let loose and trusted that the cameraman would capture their best moments with no problem. I ended up asking about them about this aspect of filmmaking.

Ben Kenber: This movie was shot mostly with a hand held camera, and it felt like this gave the actors a lot more freedom to move around that they would not have had on a regular movie set. Would you say that you found a special freedom in acting with this way of filming?

Kristen Wiig: Yeah, I did. Sergio (Armstrong, the director of photography) was amazing. You just sort of feel like you can be those people and do the scenes and he’ll kind of find you. If you wanted to do it again he would kind of figure out where to go. There was a lot of freedom. There weren’t a lot of marks we had to hit.

Sebastian Silva: Yeah, there were no marks at all. All of the actions of course are written and all the scenes so we know the locations and everything that needs to happen. But there are a lot of times where we didn’t use the slate, and then we would move from a wide shot to a close up without cutting ever. I was acting, I had never acted before, but I feel that for actors not to be cutting all the time that it is also so much fun because scenes and takes usually don’t last more than four minutes. It’s usually like ‘action’ and then it’s like four minutes that the actor gets to do his or her thing, and then it’s like ‘cut,’ makeup and then they don’t really get to enjoy performing as much as like when you’re improvising a take and go for as long as 35 minutes sometimes, right?

KW: Yeah.

SS: Yeah, it was a lot like that, changing things as we were shooting without cutting. It was fun.

BK: I imagine that not having to worry about hitting your marks frees you up a lot.

KW: Oh yeah, definitely (laughs).

The one thing they always taught in those acting on camera classes is that the camera is always your friend and will never let you down. It certainly didn’t let Wiig or Silva down during the making of “Nasty Baby” as the both inhabit their characters more than play them, and it never feels like you are watching a movie. Instead, it feels like you are watching real life unfold, and this is not an experience you often get at the movies.

“Nasty Baby” is now available to watch on YouTube, iTunes and Amazon Video.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2015.

Nasty Baby American poster