Demme’s Dazzler

Photo: Bob Vergara/Courtesy of Sony Picture Classics

Early in Jonathan Demme’s heartrending Rachel Getting Married, fresh-out-of-rehab Kym (Anne Hathaway) rises to toast her older sister, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), at the rehearsal dinner, and we know from her first wayward sentences that she’s going to make a fool of herself. It’s a familiar setup nowadays: The exhibitionist opens his or her mouth, toads leap out, and the camera takes in the wreckage, unblinking, while we squirm or snicker or both. In another recent nuptials film, Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding, nearly every encounter is engineered for us to cringe at the characters’ monstrous egotism. But as Kym babbles with forced good cheer about making amends and the AA Fourth Step (“Step … step-ball-change … still waiting for the change part!”) and the guests go stone-faced, something unusual happens. We start to feel emotions other than discomfort. For Demme and first-time screenwriter Jenny Lumet, Kym’s humiliation isn’t an end in itself. We stay with her through the embarrassment and come out the other side. And we see all at once that this unstable, self-centered child-woman longs to make things right, even if she doesn’t begin to know how—even if things can never be made right.

The opening isn’t promising—or, rather, the promise is the movie will be grueling. As Kym waits outside the rehab facility for her dad to drive her to her family’s Connecticut house, a spiteful patient hisses something about her having killed someone in a car; a few scenes later, at home, she gingerly opens the door of what’s clearly a little boy’s room and the bed is perfectly made and the toys too neatly in place. Uh-oh: another dead-kid movie. But Declan Quinn’s camera follows Kym into that room from an odd angle—down low, looking up instead of over her shoulder (as in a Gothic horror film). The obliqueness and tremulousness of the shot is a mercy. Demme is a father (his teenage son, Brooklyn, plays guitar in the onscreen wedding band), and he’s too sensitive—by which I mean both principled and vulnerable—to turn the dead-child device into a dramaturgical striptease. The tragedy is always there—the movie fairly shivers with a sense of loss. But there are so many countervailing currents that it never becomes a dirge. It’s messy and alive, teeming with wonderful performers acting their hearts out.

That includes Hathaway, who is stunningly vivid. She has a habit of telegraphing her characters’ emotions, but this time her mannerisms are in sync with the role. Kym is a former child model whose mood swings prompt her anxious father, Paul (the superb Bill Irwin), to rush in and coddle her; it makes sense for the character to draw attention to herself by pulling faces. And, really, what a face to pull. The dark eyes, the heavy mouth, the teeth like bowling pins: Everything but the tidy ski-slope nose is way oversize, as if her head never grew into her features. The bratty Kym is impossible to ignore, even when she’s only smoking and glowering. This is Rosemarie DeWitt’s first big movie role, and although she doesn’t resemble Hathaway, she meshes with her. Rachel is at long last fed up with being upstaged, and when she reacts to her sister, we react to (and like) her. In the midst of a public screaming match she’d ordinarily never win, Rachel pulls out a trump card—she announces she’s pregnant. As relatives clamor around, Kym cries, “That’s so unfair!” The line is so childishly pure in its resentment that it could be a speech balloon in a Peanuts strip.

In Demme’s last “personal” fiction film, The Truth About Charlie (I’m not counting his Manchurian Candidate remake), the overflowing humanism—multicultural musicians everywhere you looked, and the camera made you look—overwhelmed the narrative. Demme was starting to seem fatuously humanistic. But in Rachel Getting Married, his generous impulses pay off. He creates a Robert Altman–like texture, hectic but focused. The 12-step meetings Kym attends don’t go on a beat too long—just long enough to register all the troubled, lived-in faces. This bleak family drama unfolds in a larger, extended family in which barriers have dissolved. Especially racial barriers: Paul’s second wife (Anna Deavere Smith) is African-American, and so is Rachel’s fiancé (Tunde Adebimpe, the lead singer of TV on the Radio). Late in the film, there’s a lengthy musical sequence featuring Arabic musicians who worked on Demme’s Jimmy Carter documentary, as well as past collaborators Robyn Hitchcock and Sister Carol East. I’ve heard people say Demme’s use of music is “self-indulgent.” Well, it’s indulgent, but the self has nothing to do with it. Shakespeare’s comedies end with songs and dances (which most directors cut). Demme must have felt he needed the celebratory communal interlude to offset the central story, which is bleak and ragged and unfinished.

Debra Winger plays Kym and Rachel’s mother, Abby, and when we see her again onscreen, it’s hard not to smile. She’s family. But Abby turns out to be a painfully limited woman, and with Winger in the role, we feel Kym’s disappointment more acutely. I don’t mean Winger is disappointing: The performance is beautifully modulated, a layer of maternal warmth over a layer of fear—she turns mean when threatened, then ices over. I mean that when Winger’s face hardens and becomes masklike, it evokes feelings we’ve all had when people we loved didn’t rise up to comfort us. I’ve never seen a movie with this mixture of fullness and desolation. Rachel Getting Married is a masterpiece.

Joel and Ethan Coen will have a good giggle when they see Ridley Scott’s conspiracy thriller Body of Lies, which delivers with a straight face the kinds of shots and setups the brothers wickedly burlesqued in Burn After Reading. The movie isn’t witty or memorable, but it keeps you on edge, and it’s the first war-on-terror film to weave its anti-U.S. politics so deeply into the narrative that the characters don’t need to speechify. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the idealistic CIA operative whose methods and morals are constantly undermined by his chummy Langley-based boss, played by Russell Crowe with glasses and 30 extra pounds. It’s a kind of sick joke to cast Crowe, one of the most crazy-intense actors alive, in the role of a man who’s entirely removed from the consequences of his actions—to the point where he can kiss his kids on a Virginia playground while talking tactics into his headset. To this big slug, who barely seems connected to his own body, everyone is expendable—informants, contract employees, agents. He’s American callousness personified, and American incompetence, too: In spite of his technology, he’s too far away to see what’s happening on the ground.

Scott’s ground game isn’t bad; his style is less techno-whoosh and more muscular than usual. But he lets nothing interfere with pacing, including hitting some basic dramatic beats. The moment when DiCaprio comes up with his ingenious scheme to smoke out an elusive terrorist? Missing. The moment he realizes how he’s been used? Murky. The big payoff? Muted. The film has one indelible asset: Mark Strong, who plays the Jordanian spymaster Hani. He’s sleek and lounge-lizard sharp like a young Andy Garcia, and he could be bigger than Garcia. The Jordanian holds all the cards, and opposite two superstars, Strong is the only actor who holds the camera.

Mike Leigh’s enchanting/disturbing Happy-Go-Lucky opens October 10th after a run at the New York Film Festival; I’ll have a review next issue.

I don’t want to let New York’s 40th anniversary pass without mentioning the movie critics who’ve contributed so much to its reputation: Judith Crist, John Simon, Molly Haskell, David Denby (for two decades), Peter Rainer, and Ken Tucker. Bars don’t get set much higher.

The press might be focusing on Anne Hathaway (for obvious reasons), but what about the actress who plays Rachel’s title character? Mad Men fans will recognize Rosemary DeWitt, who was Don Draper’s beatnik lover, illustrator Midge Daniels, in the show’s first season. Yes, the one who pushed her TV out the window and uttered one of the series’ best lines, “I don’t make plans and I don’t do breakfast.” (In the end, she chose pot and Miles Davis over Paris with Draper. Too bad for him.) You can see more of DeWitt when she stars alongside Toni Collette in Showtime’s upcoming drama, The United States of Tara, written by Juno’s Diablo Cody.

Rachel Getting Married
Directed by Jonathan Demme.
Sony Pictures Classics. R.

Body of Lies
Directed by Ridley Scott.
Warner Brothers. R.


Demme’s Dazzler