Oscar-winning filmmaker Jonathan Demme died today at the age of 73. And while he made many indelible films, there was never any such thing as a “Demme style” — instead, he made movies that served the stories he was telling, staying out of the way and letting his actors shine. But whether it was concert films (Stop Making Sense), thrillers (The Silence of the Lambs), comedies (Something Wild) or dramas (Philadelphia), his movies always had deep affection for their characters. Even if it was a madman like Hannibal Lecter, Demme’s tendency was to display a nonjudgmental tone toward their monstrousness.
Demme’s skill and kindness might be best evidenced in 2008’s Rachel Getting Married, in which he crafted a graceful ensemble film much in the spirit of Robert Altman. The movie starred Anne Hathaway as Kym, a drug addict who leaves rehab after nine months to go to her sister Rachel’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) wedding to Sidney (TV on the Radio frontman Tunde Adebimpe). Everyone gathered for the big day is happy to celebrate Rachel and Sidney’s love, but they’re wary of Kym, who sees the upcoming nuptials as a chance to make amends to her family for being such a colossal screw-up. Her plan does not go well.
Rachel Getting Married features a little bit of everything that interested Demme — dark humor, drama, music, the challenge of finding a community that will accept you — and it’s littered with great performances, including Bill Irwin and Debra Winger as Kym and Rachel’s divorced parents. But the movie also plays as the perfect intersection of Demme’s strengths, combining the anything-goes spirit of his 1980s comedies (e.g., Something Wild and Married to the Mob) with the more mature style he developed in the 1990s (e.g., Philadelphia and Beloved) — and then adding a dash of the handheld, low-budget scrappiness that marked his early career (e.g., Roger Corman productions such as Fighting Mad).
Plus, the film is consistently insightful about the rambling, effusive chaos that consumes most weddings in the days leading up to the ceremony. Kym is the most troubled of the group, trying to make up for her terrible past behavior — including a tragic family secret. But just about everyone we meet in Rachel Getting Married has his or her own problems, and Demme was curious enough to let these individuals have their moment, too. Kym’s big-softie father remains sympathetic to his black-sheep daughter, while Winger’s character seems to have been permanently traumatized by Kym. And then there’s Rachel, who doesn’t understand why her loser sister gets to command center stage at a time when she ought to be the focus of everyone’s attention. This is a bitter family trying to pretend to be a happy one — just like all the others we’ve ever met in the world.
Still, per Demme’s M.O., no one comes across as a monster — even Kym. And so, while love doesn’t conquer all in Rachel Getting Married, Demme has a big enough heart to hope for the best for his flawed, basically decent characters. That big heart is just one reason filmgoers will miss him and his movies.