Thursday, October 23, 2008

Rachel gets married and you're invited

You may have read that In his new movie, "Rachel Getting Married," director Jonathan Demme channels two cinematic currents, the first from the jittery, hand-held world of Dogme 95 and the second from the alluring jumble of the best Robert Altman movies. When coupled with the post-racial ease of Jenny Lumet's script, the result is an engaging entertainment that may make you wonder whether Demme's mix of light comedy, lightening-bolt drama and social mingling represents a new kind of fantasy in which, yes, we finally all do get along.

Here are some of the things other critics have said about the movie's post-racial attitudes:

Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun Times: "I'm not going to identify characters by race, because such a census would offend the whole spirit of the film. These characters love one another, and that's it."

David Ansen, Newsweek: "But race is a non-issue in the movie—it's never even mentioned, which is probably an accurate reflection of the artistic world Lumet grew up in: her father is director Sidney Lumet; her mother, Gail, is the daughter of Lena Horne."

David Edelstein, New York Magazine: "This bleak family drama unfolds in a larger, extended family in which barriers have dissolved. Especially racial barriers..."

Anthony Scott, The New York Times: "These facts (the races of key characters) are never mentioned by anyone in the movie, which gathers races, traditions and generations in a pleasing display of genteel multiculturalism."

I also remember reading somewhere that older critics -- that would be me -- found it mildly unbelievable that the guests at the wedding that occasions the story never would mention race, this despite the fact that the bride is white and the groom, black.

This accusation struck me as naive and possibly even a misreading when it comes to the blessings of diversity, which -- it seems to me -- have less to do with ignoring differences than with exploring, respecting, enjoying and benefiting from them. I thought about this while watching the movie, which is laced with family dynamics that didn't always seem all that compelling to me.

And, now, for a short comment about a real post-racial figure: Barak Obama, who thus far has been particularly astute in his attempts to win the presidency, has presented himself as a racial and cultural centrist. A Christian. A product of the American dream. A flowering of seeds planted in the white world of his mother and grandparents and the black world of his Kenyan father. His most telling refrain throughout the campaign has been directed at the American middle class, and that's good politics.

But I don't want to ignore Obama's racial history anymore than I want to ignore the personal stories of McCain or Palin. These stories -- if you'll accept the term -- the identity of each character. Obama's genetics and his daily experience give him a telling perspective from which to address the country. His racial background informs his vision, and that vision can -- and should -- inform us, bringing new relevancies to the national conversation. Put another way, our best route to "getting along" may well involve acknowledging who we are and understanding the implications of those varied identities. Think of it this way: What good is adding spice to a dish if you can't taste it?

Now, on with the movie.

The title derives from the pending wedding of Rachel (Rosemary DeWitt) to Sidney a young black man played by Tunde Adebimpe of the band TV on the Radio. But the real dramatic action involves Rachel's sister Kym (Anne Hathaway), a recovering junkie with a terrible secret in her past. Kym's a real piece of work, an angry, cigarette-smoking misfit who could rain on even the sunniest of parades. Looking appropriately rumpled, Hathaway not only plays against her "Princess Diaries" image, she tramples it to death. Yes, the woman can act. Kym, whose personality ranges from defiant to annoying, becomes the main attraction in a movie, which, in part, deals with the bottomless selfishness of addicts and the damage they inflict on their families.

Leaning heavily on fine work from cinematographer Declan Quinn, Demme tosses us into the pre-wedding gathering at a large Connecticut home. As Altman often did, Demme allows us to feel our way around. We meet the bride's father (Bill Irwin), her stepmother (Anna Deavere Smith), her biological mom (Debra Winger) and many of the guests, but it's Hathaway's Kym who dominates; she's the proverbial thorn in everyone's side.

The big confrontation -- inevitable but still surprising --involves Kym and Winger's character. Winger's bracing, astringent performance cuts deep. When I saw her big scene, I scribbled in my notebook that "Rachel Getting Married" reminded me of Thomas Vinterberg's "The Celebration,"' only less mired in doom-struck Danish depression.

Maybe that's because Demme, who made the great concert film "Stop Making Sense," has a difficult time suppressing his celebratory instincts. It's possible that Demme wanted to sing an ode to diversity, and to that end, he gives the actual wedding an East Indian theme and offers plenty of varied music, much of it good. Demme's party spirit gave me something to savor about "Rachel Getting Married."

But there could be another point here: Perhaps Demme wants to suggest that our deepest and most volatile divisions have less to do with ethnic, cultural and racial divides than with the guilt and recrimination that can be found within a single family. Demme's enthusiastically received movie -- it scored 82 at with no less than seven critics giving it a rating of 100 -- might be the best reviewed indie movie of the year thus far. But as you may gather I think that might be overstating the case. I did feel as if I'd attended the wedding and enjoyed the reception immensely, but I wished I gotten to know some of the guests a little better, particularly those from the groom's side of the family. it's not only Rachel's wedding; it's Sidney's, too.

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